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Values & Beliefs

This is an article which appeared in The Hindu on January 3, 200o called Building Faceless Facades.

Click here to download the article

This is an article written by Baker which appeared in the Indian Express newspaper on Sat Oct 7,1995 titled Goodbye to the pleasures of a clean and beautiful city.

Click here to download the article

 

Letter from Murray and Mary Rogers and Heather Sandeman.

Note: This piece gives some insight into the Baker's lives in the Himalayan period and also provides a more personal, informal and intimate account of life with the Bakers

 

I suppose that it was about 1953 that it all began for us. Somebody told us in the village outside Barielly, that there were a couple of Quakers who had arrived in the nearby Clara Swain Hospital, from the hills. Would I perhaps be able to go and see them? I did, and more happened down the years ahead than I could have imagined then!

They were at that time living in Pithoragarh in the Himalayas, a stone's throw from Nepal, on top of a mountain, where Laurie with the help of the people around had built the most intriguing home cum hospital with a stupendous view of some 400 miles of the highest peaks in the world. Mary and I, Cheryl, Linda and Richard went to spend some time there out of the heat. We in the plains had just been given 5 '/2 Acres of land in a broken down old mango orchard where, we needed by hook or by crook, to put up an ahshram as the centre of our life, and some extremely simple huts, and a cattle shed. They needed to be simple because we had very little money, and for reasons that followers of Gandhiji can very well understand, we had no intention of even trying to collect money from abroad.

 

We hadn't realised it then, but we had landed among the right friends at the right moment. Staying in Mithranikethan (House of Friends) the name of their fascinating hospital, it hardly needed any brilliance on our side to wonder whether Laurie (with his architectural skill and determination to serve the poor and the ordinary people of India) would help us with plans for the land and building of the ashram in the village of Karela and Kargaina .Of course he did! It is no exaggeration to say that he is the only reason it was possible to build the ashram, given our constraints. With his architectural vision we too quickly saw that there is a great deal more to buildings than bricks and mortar and the ability to put up a wall that stays in place!

Laurie's buildings spoke, they articulated a vision, and they suggested a revolution. You can tell Laurie's work apart because it is designed to be a part of Nature, of the environment, of the trees and landscape that is already there. How exactly right they were, the ashram, first to be built, then the huts, the Gandhian loos and the shed. The shape of everything, the paths, Maun Kutir (The Silent hut), where the community building should be placed, and so much more were just right. The whole fitted our needsand our vision for our ashram life so perfectly.

 

At that time in Kareli village, they were two mistris (work men) bricklayers, who were ready to work, with Laurie to guide them and Fidah Hussain, our good multi-purpose Moslem friend to run errands. They already knew Laurie and I can see even now, their faces full of smiles, at the thought of his arrival for two weeks of work. For them he was 'Engineer Sahib'. Laurie himself worked with them when it came to rounded walls, a completely new idea to the village builders. His work and example were essential. The same went with what he called "holey walls" (jalis), a style new I believe in those far off days,

Everybody at work, the locals, us, students, visitors, village friends, was equally enthused by Laurie's presence and work, not to mention his humour, which was never hidden for long! Often visitors to the ashram would be so taken by Laurie's magnetic personality and jovial nature that they would also end up being guests with the Bakers up in their home in the mountains. One such friend was the traditional Roman Catholic priest and monk Swami Abhishiktananda (Dom Le Saux). The Bakers, our Quaker friends; were a new variety of Christian people whom he had never met before .The experience there, was reported back to us on his return to the plains. He was amazed and theologically changed beyond imagination. He asked himself, how Quakers like the Bakers, with no sacraments, no prayer books, with no proper Christian pedigree, were more genuinely Christian, than most Catholics, he had ever met? Some friendships make a mark that never passes. This was undoubtedly the case for this French Benedictine monk who later became a Swami, and a Sadhu.

 

By saying, that Laurie is a member of the Society of Friends, I reckon that you have located him, a little as a Christian, but not really! He fits nowhere and everywhere. He does not allow denominations or for that matter, religion, to get in any sort of way with friendship. It was once said that Jesus promised his followers three things:

To be absurdly happy, this does not exclude suffering and tears

To be entirely fearless and

To be always in trouble

—That is Laurie's and Kuni's (Elizabeth) form of Christianity, it doesn't need too often to be talked about, provided you live it, and they did! Seeing that Jesus himself was not a Christian, they are not keen on being labeled either.

 

Gandhiji, once on his weekly silent day, when asked for a message for a newspaper responded – "my life is my-message". That to my mind expresses the freedom and joy and madness of our friend Laurie. Those three marks of Jesus are so appealing that you can't keep the word fun out of the description for long. More seriously, but as genuinely, the suffering, grieving person could always rely on the good and compassionate hearts of Laurie and Kuni.

 

Another of those unforgettable moments is when I needed an operation on my behind! Kuni with her skill as a surgeon came prepared to operate. Laurie as usual, passed her instruments, a local anesthetic did the necessary. My legs were up in the air, on a homemade first-rate medical contraption to keep me in place. Kuni went ahead and Laurie accompanied the surgery with uproarious jokes, suitable and unsuitable, when suddenly Kuni exploded, "Really Laurie! — Stop joking, I can't operate on Murray when he is shaking with laughter!". That quieted Laurie temporarily. Operation over, Laurie piggy-backed me back to my bed, as he did all the patients operated on by Kuni because no three yards of the floor of the hospital was on the same level. After all, it was built on the peak of a small mountain!

How like Kuni it was, at the end of their time in Pithoragarh to say, "Laurie was behind me in my medical world. Now I want him to get back to architecture again". And my word, he did! With work that speaks of his extraordinary imagination and skill up and down the country, with so much of it being the use of skill for happiness and comfort of the most poor and the most down trodden. Whether it is cathedrals or fishermen's houses, they have that glorious Laurie touch which speaks of the most human of human beings.

 

One last memory, more recent than the rest, Mary's and my grandson James, (a member of Cheryl and Andre's family is in France) visited Kerala in the summer of 2000, with Laurence his girl friend. How could I resist, introducing them to Laurie and Kuni from afar, hoping so much, as Mary and I did, that they might be able to welcome the young couple. They did and from James and Laurence accounts on return to Europe, we heard how their time with this glorious unexpected couple of human beings was a revelation of generosity and wisdom, of laughter and compassion. So joyfully the circle of endless friendship continues. We men and women, far too often be swallowed up in violence and brutality but when by some marvelous stroke of good fortune, you meet real human beings like Laurie and Kuni in India, you know that it is still wonderfully good to be alive.

Letter from Michael Harries, 18 West End, Whitney, Oxon

 

Note: This letter is written by a friend from Baker's China years to Mrs Baker. It sheds some light on the conditions during the period and on Baker's lesser known humanitarian work in China with lepers.

 

Dear Kuni,

I am old now, as we all are, and war years were so involved with so many things, and what we did - its not easy to remember – so much has happened ever since. However I do have two memories that may be of interest as far as the FAU and China are concerned.

I was an early one to arrive in China. I drove up the Burma Road and until February 1942, was in Kweiyang, working in the medical stores. Later in the year I was posted to Paosham with the surgical team we had there. I was the anesthetist. We were close to the Mekong river which was as far as the Japanese had reached. Although I had known Laurie at home, the first time I met him in China was when I was moved to Kunming dealing with the support of other medical teams. I often went to Kunming by train, often sitting on the roof. Kunming was the unit head quarters and the meeting point for personnel, and of course all those involved with the ever increasing trucking operations and repair shops.. Laurie was in charge of the hostel. On the whole, it was a happy crowd, but care was needed to keep everyone happy. So much fell on Laurie, and he worked night and day to keep constant demands met. He did a terrific job. We had so much to thank him for.

However few, if any, realized until afterwards, the work he did a year later with the lepers at the Salachi Leper Colony. His care for those who suffered from this disease must have been of the greatest difficulty in every way. A major problem was the hatred and fear of the neighboring population. This at times resulted in physical violence and efforts to close the home. It did not take Laurie long to realise that those problems were based on ignorance. That terrible illness was not understood in any way, and people questioned why such people were allowed to exist. Laurie undertook to approach the nearby villages and explain to everyone about the plight of these people and their illness. This was of course not easy. In fact at first he was treated with great disdain and contempt, and even anger and threats of violence. But by huge efforts of perseverance Laurie won out. In fact in due course, the people not only visited the home and talked to the patients but even started to help and tend to them. He overcame a situation that seemed to have been there forever: the fear and hatred and the ignorance of a most terrible disease - leprosy.

Many missions had leprosy homes, and when the population objected, as has been the case at Salachi, the missionaries used to move their establishments away to remote lonely places. However when news of Laurie's efforts and success spread, many others undertook similar efforts and started to move the patients back to social surroundings

Laurie's life has with your support been beyond praise and I wish the both of you the very best.

A very important point that Laurie always stressed was that before he planned any building, (a house or a hospital or a place of worship) it is critical to study the needs of the people who are to use the building. It is not a place to exhibit your wealth, or your prominence in society! Wherever possible, he studied the character, and the needs and habits of his clients. This is somewhat brought out in the inaugural address of a rural hospital that he built in a remote area of Tamilnadu for the Ramakrishna Ashram and for the Sivananda Mission Ashram in Tirunalveli District. This is a part of his speech at that function:

 

`The majority of India's people live in her villages, and when they fall ill, they experience great hardship in procuring the services of a hospital or doctor. They have to cover long distances to reach a hospital often, after a long and wearisome journey, either walking, or by bullock cart, or in a crowded bus. When they arrive, they are bewildered by the strange, new surroundings, and the scores of other patients all clamoring to be seen and treated for a wide variety of complaints. After they arrive, they sill have to go through certain formalities and procedures before they face the doctor which means endless waiting, and hoping. Rural hospitals need to be planned and designed to cope with these difficult conditions peculiar to rural areas, and to come to the aid of the villager, who seeks help to ensure that he does not feel lost, helpless and dazed in an atmosphere which is just likely to induce such feelings. Evidently they have to incorporate certain features, which are not so necessary in a normally accepted city central hospital. In the first place, the buildings of the rural hospital should instill confidence in the village folk: They have to be simple, friendly, attractive and unforbidding.

 

They have to be built with local materials, with which he is familiar in his village. He will arrive at the outpatient department, a building which has to be open, airy, and spacious. In the cool sheltered area, he should be able to see where the different departments and people he has to contact are situated. As far as possible there will be a common sense sequence of these basic steps leading him to the doctor. He may have to wait his turn for this and that, but he should be able to see that he has come to the right place so that before long, he can see where and how he will get help. If he has to remain in the hospital for treatment, his surroundings have to be clean and cheerful, and not too dissimilar from those of his village. He has to be cared for and made to feel at home and certainly not regimented and imprisoned. Normally he is close to nature- Mother Earth herself – trees, grass, birds and animals, and there is no reason why he should be deprived of the sight of these things when in hospital. His normal life is lived more "out doors" than "indoors". So he should not be expected suddenly to change these conditions, even if he is too ill to move he should be able to see from his bed, these familiar sights.

 

Obviously, all the benefits of modern medicine and surgery, should be available to him. Special rooms are needed to house appliances and equipments needed and such rooms must meet all the required standards of hygiene, without having to look, cold, sterile and forbidding. The anterooms, corridors, and waiting rooms can still retain the familiar, 'inside-outside' characteristics of his village surroundings and buildings. Villagers already know and practice much that educated urban people are now pleased to term 'appropriate technology', 'alternate energy sources', or `recycled waste' etc. The hospital, which may have to serve as his home for a period of time, should not make him critical of waste.

 

Our rural hospital will keep cows for milk; wholesome food grain will be grown. The villagers who have to stay in the hospital are exposed to numerous experiences in the simple but functionally efficient buildings and the use of the land, etc. the hope is to send them back home, not only renewed in health, but enriched with a variety of experiences of which, they can talk, think about, and adopt in their villages.