Saturday, 12 January 2019

Deutschland Diaries: Die Bahn and other things railway

The train I am on is trundling into Agra station.  It's a cold January night and I have two blanket covered forms sleeping on the floor next to me as I type away. Perfect time to pick up a blog post from our Germany trip a year ago (I started it by uploading photos but never finished it)...

And so we fly back in time to January 2018 when the Lalitpur Eichers and their Oma went on a 1 month exploration of Germany.

During the amazing Deutschlandreise, the Eicher clan clocked in 2300 kms of German roads (including some serious autobahn coverage) in the reliable Black-Beauty of a VW Sharan which we were so kindly loaned for the trip.

But we also did a bit of train travel as well.

We started off with a bang... or maybe better put, a whizz of high speed.  Our dear friends in Frankfurt Barry and Steffi Hawthorne arranged for us to get a rail connection directly from Frankfurt airport.  And so early on a winter morning in Germany, we got into a sleek superfast ICE (intercity express) which can go upto 250 kms per hour.  That's just a little faster than the Nizammudin-Jabalpur express that I am currently on, click-clacking through the night between Agra and Gwalior!

The ICE train left us at the industrial city of Mannheim, where we were to taken an S-bahn - the regional train that wound along the Neckar river to the small town of Mosbach where our black-beauty was waiting for us.

Our first sunrise in Germany was at Mannheim station.

We had a small misunderstanding as the connecting S-bahn that we were to take was changed that day.  I walked up and down the platform and enquired in my rusty German about what had happened.  A helpful man told me that he too had 'missed' the other train and was going to go on the next S-bahn train.  It turns out that he was the ticket-collector and later he came and duly punched our tickets!

Staring out of the window at the winter landscape, we could not help noticing that every village or town we passed had the steeple of a church poking up prominently, and not a few had a fort or castle of some sort reared up above the town.

The S-Bahn is bright red like this train which we saw near ********** (photo taken from the car).

Yes the train was spotless (pretty much as expected).

And so, just a few hours after flying into Frankfurt, the Eichers were deep in the South German countryside, drinking coffee with our hosts at the OM base in Mosbach, marvelling that we were in a different world.

Germans love trains. 

Besides the swift sleek expresses, whispering across the countryside, there are many trains that are found at smaller scales.

The names "Marklin" and "Franklin" are well known to German hobbyists as they are the two main companies making model railways.

Here is the model railroad of Bernd, one of our relatives in Stuttgart.

We saw this amazing setup in his study.  A labour of love with hours of work going into detailing every small aspect of a scene.  The turn-table revolves, allowing locomotives of various vintages to move into their sheds.  Tiny figures are seen in this miniature world.  All is controlled from outside, with engines coming and going based on the servo commands given.

The hallway of his home has display cases showing racks of miniature trains - engines of different eras and countries, passenger and goods carriages.   Other cases show hundreds of small cars, in the same scale as the railways.  Calendars and books show where our rail enthusiast relative had gone on his precious vacations over the years...

Here is an antique steam engine and carriage which has been turned into a restaurant.  It is in the town of Geyer, deep in the Erzgebirge region of Saxony where my grandfather Willi Fischer hails from.

The restaurant is near a club where hobbyists from the area have converted an old station into a magical world of miniature railways...

The main display was an amazing miniature world of painstakingly detailed scenery, complete with towns and villages, linked by train tracks on which the model trains whizzed around.

Do you ever want to feel like a Gulliver?  Then make your way to your local model train club in Germany and feel what it means to be a giant!

After peering down at a church - complete with a tiny wedding party going into it - you might like to take in a working landscape, where a hill is being quarried out and a hard-working mountain railway is taking the ore down to an industrial town where the main express and goods lines pass by.

Tiny houses, roads with cars and lorries on them, meadows with tiny cows and people having picnics...  the attention to detail is astounding and must have taken the club members months of work to put together.

And of course, the main attractions are the trains themselves.   They whiz around traversing their varied landscapes, coming out of tunnels, climbing up inclines, all controlled from the centre of the their little world - by volunteers from the railway club who take turns to be the controller of this miniature planet.

And that control also extends to turning day into night!

Every 10 minutes or so, the lights go down in the hall, and a myriad lights start to shine in the tiny houses, streetlights, stations...  the trains whiz through the night scenes

You feel like you are in an airplane, coming into land and seeing a well-lit city open up under you.  complete with spacious well-lit stations...  And then you see a Gulliver looming over the scene in the background!

When you leave the railroad club, you are invited to have a snack at their own restaurant which is decorated with various historic railway memorabilia.  You can't help thinking that some of our stations here in India are living museums - and that what is put up for display at the club is still being used day in and day out!

For kids there is (of course) a large railroad set to play with!

Speaking of stations - our next main use of the die Bahn was towards the end of our stay when we spent 5 days taking in Berlin.

We saw a lot of stations there - some quite grand like at Berlin Alexanderplatz which is smack bang in the very centre of the grand city that Berlin is.

Our multiple rail trips in Berlin were a conscious choice.  Since there was so much to see, we decided against driving around unfamiliar streets and constantly having to use the 'Navi' to get us to where we wanted (and then trying to park our largish brute of a Black-Beauty). Instead we took day-tickets that allowed us to use local trains, underground trains and buses all over the city!

Needless to say we could see a lot from the comfort of the trains - and helpful guide maps such as on this "Berlin Bear" (the symbol of the city) showed us where to go and which connections to make.

I forget who the life-size Playmobile statue is representing - maybe a worker for the Berlin Underground?

The stations themselves were worth seeing - with many of them brilliantly decorated.  Here is one of the underground stations we passed through.  I think it was when we had to go to the Indian Embassy to sort out an OCI related issue for Mum.

My train has brought me to Gwalior station.  It's 10.28 PM and the automated announcement system is telling endlessly which train has just arrived (in this case our 22128 Nizammudin-Jabalpur Express).  A man is shouting 'cutlet, cutlet, cutlet' to get customers.  I am about to step over sleeping bodies to get a cup of tea before the train trundles me off to Lalitpur where I am due to arrive at 1.10 AM.

Die Bahn seems a world away now, but our dear Indian railways is a distant cousin nonetheless!

Wednesday, 9 January 2019

3 Funerals

I started 2019 standing on a pile of freshly excavated dirt.  Men and women standing in somber concentric circles around the open door in the ground. The coffin ready to be lowered.  The grieving family members holding each other and being supported by relatives and friends and neighbours.

Neele Aasman ke par jayenge, mera Yeshu rehta wahan...  the combined voices of the gathered crowd soared into the foggy sky on a cold Lalitpur morning.  "I will go above the blue skies - where my Jesus lives"...  I had the privilege of being asked to pray near the end of the short service at the graveside.   Shortly afterwards the coffin carrying Mr. R.A. Paul, a local Christian leader whose funeral we were gathered for, was let down in to the welcoming earth.  "Ashes to ashes, dust to dust" said the presiding minister.  "We commit this body into the care of the Lord till the resurrection" he concluded, taking up a fist full of earth and throwing it on the coffin 5 feet down. 

We took our handfulls and added more dirt to cover the coffin.  Then young men took shovels and filled up the grave.  Closing the chapter of this man's life, ending a portion of his family's journey.

A few days earlier, Mr. Paul had been celebrating Christmas with his family.  Just before New Year's a young man on a rashly driven motorcycle knocked him down.  Mr. Paul suffered a brain haemorrhage.  He was rushed to hospital in Jhansi, and then taken to Gwalior for surgery.  But he did not survive.  We buried him on the first Saturday of the new year, with 2019 only 5 days old.

Even a the funeral, I couldn't help replaying in my mind the hopeless wails of the women at a village funeral that I attended 8 months earlier.  Couldn't help heart still echo with the terrible cries of one of our young support staff members who suddenly lost her husband in a traffic accident 2 months ago. This funeral in the cold of winter was one where through the tears there shone hope.  Everyone was sad.  People were standing in solidarity to the family and comforting the immediate members.  There was real sorrow.  But the words of Scripture rung through: "the trumpet shall sound, and the dead shall be raised, and we shall be changed."


A few days earlier we heard that our dear Dr. Symon (Cy) Satow had been called home to his beloved Jesus - 90 years after he was born in 1928.   

It was my deep privilege to be welcomed into the Satow family during my first year of boarding school.  As a shy 11th grader, this family was a life-line to me.  Their love for me continued through my college years in the US and beyond.

The beautiful smile that so often creased Dr. Satow's face remains etched in my memory (I could just never called him by his first name).  How I wish I had the privilege of working with him.  But at least I got a bit of it vicariously, being thrilled to hear him share some of his experiences as a missionary doctor on lazy Saturday mornings with mugs of tea in hand.  

Dr. Satow's gentle, irenic conversation, his deep wisdom and love for people, the joy he had in his children and colleagues shine bright as the memories of him and the sparky Mrs. Satow bubble up.  

I have a small pet theory:  everyone needs a second set of parents. 

The wonderful parents that God gave as our own flesh-and-blood-ones are such a blessing.  But we also need to drink deep of the air of another family too.  To see a different world, to plunge into other depths.   Such were the Satows to me.  A fresh faith of a different flavour to my childhood one.  A world of medical service which we had not experienced (other than using 'Where there is no doctor' for our own home-treatments).  New lands of what conversations can be.  The Satows introduced me to a bracing sabre-fight of repartee around the table quite different from what could be rather staid (though full of love) conversations that we had growing up as Eichers.  The gentle one-on-one conversatoins with Dr. Satow and Mrs. Satow also probed my sometimes brash statements of faith (many of which were actually just parroted from what I heard growing up - not having been discovered myself).  And of course I drunk in the many stories that flowed from a life-time of service in rural India that the Satows were living out.

And so when on the last day of 2018, I got the first news of Dr. Satow's death the day before, I felt a small sharp twisted knot of pain somewhere ''within" me.  My eyes misted and I took a deep sigh and just thanked the Lord.  If there ever was a "life well lived" is it is Dr. Satow's.  A proof of the divine, this side of eternity.  "Well done, good and faithful servant." 

Truly his children - both his biological and spiritual legacy will rise and call him blessed.  A life lived with no regrets.  I was not able to be at Dr. Satow's funeral - but I will see him at the resurrection!

Dr. Satow and Mrs. Satow and their children and grandchildren at the 90th Birthday celebrations in the summer of 2018.


A third funeral, this time direct flesh-and-blood. 

Ten years ago we went to Sheba's mother's ancestral village of Lankalakoderu  in West Godavari District of Andhra Pradesh.  The patriach of our family was her brother David - or "David Mama" as we called him.  He was the last surviving brother of Amma, as her other two brothers had already died earlier.

And then Amma  unexpectedly died in October 2017.  We never dreamed she would be called home on the day she was.  But God our good Father had prepared her over the previous year - and knew when to call her peacefully to Himself.  Her death was unexpected to us, but her life had not been 'cut-short' - she lived a full 70 years and then was called home.

Ourselves a decade ago - just after Christmas 2008. 
David Mama is second from left in front.   Sheba's parents are to his left. 

On New Year's Day 2019 we got the news that Uncle David had died the night before.   

He had been worshipping with others in the local Hebron assembly in the village.  As is the practice, everyone in the congregation took turns to pray aloud during the 'Watch-Night Service' - the last worship time of the year.   

David Mama also worshipped aloud, thanking God for 2018 and praising Him for who He is.  And then we had a massive heart attack.  David Mama didn't live to see 2019 in this body.

How much we wish we could see David Mama again.  We know 'that day' will come - and sometimes wish it would hurry up, other times we want the present future to stretch out of a loooong time more...

I deeply appreciate David Mama's deep love for so many.  You could see it from his honest smiling face.  Having lived in North India David Mama could speak Hindi.  This was good for us, as were able to communicate with each other since sadly I do not know any Telegu.  I remember our times together fondly - even though they were too few and far between.   Sheba told me that David Mama had talked about coming to visit us here in Lalitpur.  His prayers back in the ancestral village were directed to this part of the country too. 

The sudden calling home of David Mama while attending the Watchnight service was a real shock.  But again, once the initial bit of sad surprise wore off, I just had to thank the Lord Jesus for His faithful goodness to us in the person of David Mama.

As with Dr. Satow, we were not able to be "present" at David Mama's funeral in the village.  And though that saddens us and makes us wish we could just soar like swans and be in so many more places at once.  But we have Jesus.  He is able to help us through all our sufferings.  A man of sorrows, acquainted with grief.

It has been our consistent experience to experience hope in Jesus in these times of sorrow.  A funeral does not mean a defeat, does not mean shrinking back from God.   But it does mean that who have run their race for him will not be put to shame.


3 funerals.  One attended by me in the spirit and flesh, 2 others only in spirit.  But in each one there were clear sparks of joy mingled with the tears.  Sorrow may last for a night, but joy comes in the morning!

Sunday, 6 January 2019

Calls from "Matt" and "Jen"


Sheba is in the hospital at this point.  Its a cold evening in Lalitpur, the electric heater is on, the kids are studying hard.

Today is our weekly half-day which we get 3 Saturdays a month.  But Sheba is back in the hospital.  The phone rang a few minutes ago.  A pregnant lady has come for admission.  Sheba is on call.  She has been on call every day now for about a month.  Its a doctor's life.

The call came from "Matt."   Not Mathew or Mathilda.  It was from the Maternity Ward.  On Sheba's mobile, when we hear the loud caller tune the first question is - who is calling now.  If it is "Mat Ward" then she is told that "Matt" has called as the phone is handed to her.

If the phone is from the General Ward ("Gen Ward" on her mobile) - then she gets the cheery news that "Jen" has called her.

Sometimes "Matt" or "Jen" is a nurse asking for advice, or reporting on the result of a test that Sheba had ordered previously.  Sometimes it is the news that a patient's relatives want to take them away - or that a patient's condition has worsened.  Sometimes it is a call to announce that a new patient has come.

All these call are 'outside' working hours.  In big hospitals the number of calls are high.  But then there are also a string of doctors who share the burden.

In small hospitals, struggling to exist (like ours) every call is vital.  The most challenging ones come at night.  A family bringing a lady with delivery pains.  Can we admit.  Sometimes they have been told by the government hospital across the road to go to Jhansi (120 kms away) but they anyway give us a try to see if we can help.

We are struggling here because after three quarters of a century of delivering babies, our previous colleagues lost a mother who had been referred to us from the government hospital.  The family of the dead lady was enraged and beat up our doctor friends.  The government health authorities got involved and launched an inquiry.

The inquiry found that our doctors had done nothing wrong - everything possible had been done, but the patient died.  The authorities, however, questioned why we were conducting emergency obstetric care without a gynaecologist or surgeon on staff, and why we had been using a nurse-anaesthetist instead of a doctor.  We were informed that we would not be 'spared' if another incident like this happened. 

So here we have the conundrum.  We want to care for women in distress, and especially for those who have high-risk pregnancies.   Our nurses have many years of experience in deliveries.  In Lalitpur we have generations of people who have been delivered at our hospital.  But that number is gradually eroding, and we hardly do any deliveries anymore.

We don't because we are ethical.  We know that most deliveries will take place normally - even in high-risk ones.  But there is always the chance that there will be a difficulty - and so we have to tell the family that we are unlikely to be able to do an emergency caesarian section if needed.  In reality we should start surgery within 15 minutes of detecting foetal distress or seeing that a mother's life is in danger.  We are unable to provide this guarantee at this point.  And so we have to tell mother after mother to move to Jhansi (120 kms away) while she is still stable.

These are some of the hardest calls for Sheba to take as a doctor.  To go and tell people who have come hoping for help that they should go somewhere else.  It is soul destroying - especially if the mother is a woman we have been looking after in our ante-natal clinic over the months - but now that she is in possible distress we cannot help...

But some calls result in smiles on our faces.

The other day a woman came early in the morning from the govt. hospital.  Sheba assessed her and realised she needed a caesarian section a.s.a.p.  The child was in distress.  Sheba called the surgeon who was still asleep.  But, he was in town and ready to help but asked Sheba to make sure the anaesthetist was available.  She then called this gent who said he would come in 15 mins.  Sheba called the surgeon again.  Both showed up soon after and the surgery went without incident.  A call from "Matt" which ended in a life saved - and a happy family!

In another recent incident we had an elective caesarian section.  There was a small delay in one of the team coming, and the family became a bit worried.  We assured them that since it was an elective surgery, it would not matter if it was done a few hours here or there. 

But when the surgery was done and the baby was born the surgeon told Sheba something after he saw the child.  She could not hear him properly from under his mask.  Then she saw what he was telling her.  The baby girl had a cleft lip. 

How to tell the family, who were already a bit worried because of the slight delay in the surgery?

Sheba prayed, took a deep breath and met with the family.  God helped wonderfully.  Sheba found a video from Smile Train in Hindi which showed how a child born with a cleft lip or palate can be surgically helped.  There was also a video showing how to feed a child with a cleft lip.

Sheba told the family that we have a wonderful surgeon Dr. Rajiv Choudhurie who does this surgery - and who after the child gains a bit of weight (usually after she is 6 months old) will be able to do the surgery - completely free!

The family took the news so well.  They watched the film about feeding and in 2 days the baby had learned to feed.

Your prayers for the on-going work of HBM Hospital are deeply appreciated. 

We have some distance to go as the current patient load is very low.  Our staff levels are unsustainable at this point - given the low footfall and admission rates.  At the end of the day we want to see people who are sick here in Lalitpur district be blessed.  Be fully and completely cured. 

To do so we need to have a complete medical team on the campus.   Unless the full suite of curative services are offered in a consistent way, how will families bring their patients to us?

We want to see more patients be blessed by "Matt" as well as by "Jen!"  In the mean-time, Sheba bears the brunt.  We are putting it back in the Lord's hands - and trying to move forward in faith - and by faithfully doing what we can.

7 Reasons for Gratitude

"Count your blessings, name them one by one...."

Another year has slipped by - and Sheba and I are into a land-mark year for us. 

2019 will see us both bump into our Jubilee ages (with us cumulatively having completed a century on life on this planet).  Asha will come of age (that too in less than 2 weeks from now).   Both Asha and Enoch will be appearing for their external exams at the end of Feb and into March.  Asha may be off to the US for her further studies (finances are the question at this point).   At the end of the year Sheba and I will be completing 2 decades of married life.

Work-wise we are in for some pretty big changes here at HBM Hospital.  And our beloved Emmanuel Hospital Association is also going to celebrate its golden Jubilee this year too.

But before we get ahead of ourselves, let's look back and count a few of the amazing blessings we have received.

At our HBM Hospital Christmas function I mentioned that we had at least 2018 reasons to be thankful to God in 2018.  I ended up sharing 18 blessings that were linked to the hospital, and won't repeat them here (but am happy to send them to anyone who is interested).

There are just so many, many reasons to be grateful for this past year (though it has been a pretty quiet one on ye olde blogge for various reasons).  Who can count all the blessings received?

So instead of a long list, here is a short one.  Just 7.  Not necessarily the most important ones.  Not ranked in order.  But 7 reasons for gratitude for the past year.

Reason to be Grateful No. 1: Family

What can we say?  Our immediate family is now apart for most of the year with Sheba and myself mainly here in Lalitpur at HBM hospital - and Asha and Enoch at Wynberg in Mussoorie.   It has been *really* hard to be apart - but we are grateful for the times that we were together.

Ever since we were not given permission by the govt. authorities to bring Yohan with us to Lalitpur, he has been well cared for at an amazing set of folks just outside Mumbai.  But this November we were all together for the first time since April 2016...

Life has a lot of rough-edges and as a family we are far from perfect.  Many things seem messy, and we wish much was different.  But how grateful we are for each other.  And how amazing to see the trajectories the kids are taking. 

At present we have the present Sheba and I have the joy of having Asha and Enoch here for 2.5 months as they prepare for their external exams in Feb and March.  We are aware of just how precious these days are which seem to be just spinning away from us... 

It was an amazing Christmas to celebrate with some of our extended family like the 3 wise women (Sis. Leela, Sis Deena and Sis Mary Lima) who visited us for a dinner and afterwards a bonfire in the cold winter night.

Christmas day itself offered the remarkable experience of us going as a family to a distant village near the Madhya Pradesh border to celebrate with village followers of Christ.  The ride through the early morning sun, past bright green fields to that distant place remains in my mind.  The day was spent with many dances and soulful singing.  So glad that our family is able to assimilate in experiences far outside our norms.  Can you find Sheba in the picture below? 

To be living out our life as a family - even with the long periods that we are away for each other is such a blessing.  Very, very grateful for God's goodness.

Reason to be Grateful No. 2:  All's well back in Thane

All's well?  Well, maybe not everything of course.... 

But in November we made our first visit back to Mumbai as a family since we left in 2016.  What we did see is that our leaving Thane where we had worked for 14 years did not lead to the work among people with HIV shrivelling up and floating away.  The wonderful folks at Jeevan Sahara Kendra - lead by our dear bro Jolly Thomas - have continued to faithfully meet people living with HIV in their homes.  At the end of the year some 350 people affected by HIV and their family members got together in Thane to share about how God had been good to them over the year.  How different from the first group of about 20 folks who met at the end of 2002 in a small Thane slum-church...

More surprisingly for me, however, than the continued faithfulness of our colleagues at JSK (whom we knew was what I saw at the annual Family Camp that our cluster of house-fellowships in Mumbai hold over the Diwali holidays.

Besides the joy of meeting so many old friends (and making some new ones too!) one of the lovely things that I saw was just how *normal* it was to have people with HIV as part of the church.   I was taken aback to see just how many of the folks at the camp were themselves HIV positive, or were survivors of parents who had died of HIV, or had been care-givers for family members with AIDS.  And that these folks were so totally integrated into the weft and warp of the various fellowships that were part of the camp.  It is literally a dream come true - something so different from mid 2002 when we did not know of any church in Thane who had a known person with HIV as part of their fellowships.  Soli Deo gloria!

Reason for Grateful No. 3:  Travels
Well now, did this past year ever start with travels...   We rung in the new year 2018 in Berlin - attending an amazing Bach concert in the Berliner Dom and then braving the raucous fireworks that heralded in the new year near the Reichstag. 

Thanks to the generosity of many the 4 of us and our amazing 80 year old Oma were able to drive 2300+ kms around Germany in a big black VW Sharan, visit innumerable churches and historic sites, be spoiled silly by feast after feast, ponder at the horrors of the past (and the challenges of the present), get to know relatives that we had only heard of...

We returned back to India after our first international trip as a family deeply grateful (and hungry for more!)

Being in boarding school also has given us plenty of reasons to travel up and down between Lalitpur and Mussoorie - and we were able to squeeze in as many opportunities to see the young ones and Oma as possible.  It was a blessing to have to go to Dehra Dun / Mussoorie for 'work' and then be able to squeeze in a quick Shanti Kunj stop to see Oma or catch Asha performing in a play at Wynberg.  Grace and mercy has been given to us in dollops!

Besides our landmark trip back to Mumbai over the Diwali holidays, another special journey was a quick shot down to Chennai to spend some time with Appa a year after Amma was taken from us.  Travelling made it all possible - in this case a night train to Delhi and then a red-eye flight down to Chennai - squeezed in the middle of one of the most busy times of our lives...

Reason to be Grateful No. 4: Difficulties 
Ooh really?  Is it possibly to be thankful for times when we are glum, when things just don't seem to be going right?

Well, at the time it is very, very hard.  But it has been done before!  The good Book has many examples of folks who have stuck it out, and then said they are grateful for the challenges they faced.

This past year has been a hard one for us.  We've been pretty disappointed with a number of decisions made that have directly affected us and the work that we are doing here.  The thought of moving on has been more than just an idle notion.  We have prayed much and are still working through some of the issues to do with the running of our beloved HBM Hospital.

But one thing is certain.  Tough times have brought us closer to the Lord.  We asked for an exit-ticket, but did not get one.  Instead we heard Him say "dwell in the land!" (Ps. 37.4)

So (somewhat grudgingly) I want to be grateful for difficulties.  My own limitations are starkly shown, the bitter taste of defeat is not pleasant,  the niggling doubts and fogs of depression are no picnic, but through it all we can see the outlines of hope, the mercy of a good Father who walks along with us, holding our hands, speaking comfort and help along the path.

Reason to be Grateful No. 5: "Angels" 
I have yet to see one with wings, but this past year has brought us our fair share of non-aviatory angels. 

We have been so blessed by so many who have come alongside us and helped out in various ways.  Some have paid a visit and listened and prayed.  Others have give us their services.  Still others have sent financial help for the HBM Hospital.  Some have called up or written.  Many have prayed.

Angels such as Dr. Rajiv Choudhurie who did surgical camps with us this year.  Angels like Dr. Jesudoss who came to help with the anaesthesia at 3 of these camps. 

Angels like Jonathan Forte who gave and gave of himself to us and to so many around us during his time of service here at HBM Hospital.  And whose Dad Jerry Forte spent an amazing fortnight with us. 

Angels such as Dr. Frikkie Kellerman whose wise counsel and fresh love for Jesus touches the heart.  Drs. Manoj and Manju Jacob who flew up to spend time in prayer with Sheba and myself.    Those who met us in various fora and let us know that they were standing by through some of the challenges we have faced during the year. 

And so many others.  We use the term angels, but we mean people who love.  In deed.  In reality.  When things seem to be falling apart.  When our own inadequacies are painfully obvious.  Who come and give grace.  Alongsiders.

Reason to be Grateful No. 6:  Revelation 
In an age when everything is shifty, shady.  When 'fake news' is the flavour of the day and our global leaders seem to plunge to new depths of silliness and quackery, what deeper and greater hope do we have than knowing a God who reveals Himself through His word?

Over and over this year we have seen truth lived out both in the big picture and in the intimacy of our lives as the Word and the world come together.

As mentioned before, one of the deepest revelations we had this year was God speaking to us to 'dwell in the land.'  We had been asking for guidance about whether to give a commitment to serve here in Lalitpur long-term, or to move on to the next portion of our lives.  And there it was - when the dear lady read out the portion to us - it was as if a small clear silver bell had rung.  We knew that this was an answer to the knotty question we had.

Revelation doesn't necessarily mean that things are easier.  We have continued to walk down (and up) some stony paths, but knowing the direction you are going and knowing that it is worth it makes a slog much more bearable.

Reason to be Grateful No. 7:  A fresh start
2019 is 5 days old... make that 6 since it is now 2.07 AM.

But I am so grateful for the opportunity to live.  To make choices.  To begin again. 

Everyday is a wonderful chance to once again chart something new.

As we have closed the book on 2018 - with all its joys and sorrows - we are grateful to be able to chart a new course in 2019.

I realise that I need to spend more time in quiet.  Listening.   And want to action on this.  To seek my Lord and know Him deeper.  To do what He wants in the way He does.

There are still many lists of 'things to do' pending, but I think that will always be the case.  Life is short.  Eternity is forever.   I am very grateful for Sheba's patience with me and for the joy of living our life together.


Sunday, 30 December 2018

Truth will out!

She came in to our hospital in the late afternoon 3 days ago.

A young woman, who we will call Laxmi, brought by her mother-in-law.   Sheba has been holding the fort as the only doctor for the past 10 days and so naturally saw Laxmi.

Laxmi complained of abdominal pain.  She had a child a year ago.  Sheba asked her if she was pregnant.  Laxmi said she wasn't.  Sheba asked about her last period - she said that she had not had any since she gave birth to her child whom she was still breast-feeding.

Sheba saw that her abdomen was distended.  "Are you pregnant?" she asked Laxmi again.  "No."

Sheba asked Martha the nurse on duty to take Laxmi to the examination room and prepare her for a pelvic examination.  Routine stuff.

Martha suddenly bursts in the door: "Doctor-ji, please come quickly!  The baby's head is coming out!"

Sheba moves over the examination room and sure enough, the labour has already been productive.  A child is very much on its way!   A trolley is organised quickly and mother and child (with mother-in-law in tow) are wheeled to the delivery room.  Our able nurses assist and a healthy baby girl is safely delivered at our beloved HBM Hospital here in Lalitpur.

So here is the question:  Did Laxmi know she was pregnant.

She denied Sheba's questioning and yet minutes later gave birth to a baby girl.  How is that possible?

Option 1:  Deception.  Laxmi knew but didn't want her mother-in-law (and various sundry others) to know.  Her response to Sheba was a clear distortion of the truth.

Option 2: Sheer naivete.  Somehow, despite already being a mother, Laxmi was guileless and unclear about another life growing within her and causing her body to swell and finally enough abdominal pain that she sought help from a hospital.

Option 3: Unstable mind.  Laxmi is in a situation where for some reason she cannot discern what is going on around her.  The questions that Sheba gives her as a doctor are not understood.  She is unable to respond properly.  A child is born.

Option 4: Denial.  The bulge is there.  But Laxmi doesn't want it to be.  And so it isn't.  If I don't talk about it, it will go away.  But of course, it doesn't.  And one fine day, the baby appears.


I really don't know which of the four possibilities Laxmi falls into (and when we say 'Laxmi' we of course have to include the extended family who have been living cheek-by-jowl with her over the past at least 8 months or so!).

But my guess is most likely that we are dealing with denial.   A straight out deception is just too hard to keep going.  But denial?  Well the human heart is almost infinitely able to trick itself. 

And so the thoughts have wandered to my own little bit of real-estate.  Who am I and what do I 'deny' in my life?  Even a short internal examination brings up a fair amount of stuff that just doesn't fit with reality.  I think of myself as a "people person" - "friendly and approachable"... and yet I know that many people come to my desk with some amount of trepidation.  My scowl often comes out when I think of myself as a "smiler."

And what of other things that are 'there but I don't want to admit it'?

The end of the year is a good time to reflect.  Is there something that I just don't want to admit - be it out of pride, or fear of being considered a loser?  Something that I am holding on to, something that is clear to everyone else except me?

Or perhaps even worse - something that I know that I should be doing - but keep procrastinating.  Keep pushing aside.  Keep not wanting to address because it is 'hard' and 'uncomfortable'...

Our Lord was no stranger to the two-facedness of humanity.  In His deep love for His disciples He rebuked them, and welcomed them back to Him with deep biting grace.   At one point Jesus said that if we hold to his teaching we are truly His disciples.  We will know the truth and the truth will set us free (John 8.31-32).  Truth must be out.  Truth must be acted on.

As I step into 2019 I want this to be true of me.  No more denial.  No more excuses.   No more pushing-off-until-tomorrow.  Deep breath.  Quiet down. Spend time listening. Dare to look honestly.  Write down.  Pray up.  Live out.


Thursday, 20 December 2018

Support groups

I have been part of support groups for the past 2 decades.  

My first exposure was in the North East.  While working with people who use drugs - or who used to use drugs and were trying to stay sober - I came across the 12 step process that Alcoholics Anonymous (AA) and Narcotics Anonymous (NA) use.  "Once a junkie, always a junkie" was heard more than once.  Walking along people who are working with addictions meant a lot of talking and listening and talking some more.

The real core of my support group experiences was the Positive Friends meeting we had on the last Wednesday of each month at the Jeevan Sahara Kendra in Thane.  People living with HIV got together and shared their experiences.  The sorrow and pain.  The joys of seeing small victories.  The multiple challenges of living every day in the shadow of death.  We met and sang and prayed, splitting into small groups at the end of the meeting.  We usually ended by continuing our conversations over a healthy snack and tea.   One of the core values of the Positive Friends group was the amazing benefit of People living with HIV having a safe space to talk - and to be with others who understood.

We started our first monthly meetings with our JSK staff usually far out-numbering the Positive Friends.  One memorable early meeting only had 2 people with HIV present - and one of them was working with another charity whom we had invite to speak to the 'group' - which turned out to be a crowd of one!  But over the years we saw traction and the support group continues even today - every last Wednesday of the month.

Our last 2 years here at HBM Hospital in Lalitpur we have been doing a variety of things - but support groups did not seem to be in the picture.  Things have changed a bit lately, though.

Earlier this year Sheba took on the role of the Palliative Care Coordinator for the hospital.  HBM has been doing palliative care for the past decade - starting one of the first rural palliation programmes and reaching out to families who are totally crushed by the hopelessness of terminal illness.

Our mobile team goes out by jeep - reaching families in a 50 km radius.  We have about 30 people with life-limiting diseases in Lalitpur town and care for another 60 or so in the villages.  Each family is precious and our team have done an amazing work building relationships with them as they walk through the dark valleys. 

The difference between the work here in Lalitpur and in Thane is one of community.  Our team go out and help people in their homes - but people getting palliative care and their family members and survivors have not really been meeting together.

Over the past 2 months we have made 2 small steps to rectify this.  On the International Palliative Care day we brought families together to the HBM Hospital.  We sat in a circle and took turns sharing about our experiences with palliation.  A nascent support group.

I use the word "we" because for the first time in the years of support groups - I am taking part as a member rather than an organiser.  Having lost Dad 2 years ago to cancer, and having had him cared for in the final weeks here at HBM, I am now one of the families who have gone down this path.  My fellow care-givers and those who are courageously living with cancer (the main need for palliation here) are ones who I share a common experience with.

Our most recent meeting was last week at the HBM Palliative Care annual thanksgiving and Christmas programme.   Amazingly, and totally unknown to us, the Jeevan Sahara Kendra annual meet was also held on the same day!

What a privilege to meet in the new palliative care ward - beautifully painted by the members of the Mission Direct team on their recent visit to us.  Besides singing and seeing a rollicking Christmas drama and hearing Sheba give a thanksgiving report of what the Palliative Care team did over the past year, the highlight was a time where people got up and shared a bit of their lives.

As a group here, we are still new at this.  Most have not 'shared' their stories with others.   Most do not 'know' each other.  The families who came have received help from the Palliative Care team - but have not really built trust with each other.  And then there is the challenge of having people with mouth cancer (the predominant cancer here) speak.  Some can only whisper.  Others have large disfigurations to their faces.  All are precious.  But we have some ways to go on our journey together.

It's a small start, but one with much potential. 

What support group can you be part of?  There is much to gain... and much to give as we share the journeys we are on.

Saturday, 1 December 2018

The beauty of normality

It's World AIDS Day today.  Another December 1st.  With a 2018 flavour to it.

The remarkable thing for me, is just how unremarkable it has become.  And I think mainly for good reasons.

We are witnessing today what we had hoped and prayed for 10 years ago.  A world where living with HIV is a possibility.  A world where just finding out that you are HIV Positive was not a death sentence.

A few small snapshots to illustrate.

Vignette No. 1
We work at a small Christian Mission hospital in central India.   One of my colleagues is HIV positive.  Amazingly, this colleague attended a conference on HIV what we organised in 2005 in Mumbai.  Our colleague is on regular medication.  This morning when everyone else shook hands with each other, so did this precious person.  Most of our staff know about the status of our colleague and our church routinely prays for strength and health with no one batting an eyelid.   The beauty of it all is just how normal it is to work every day with a person living with HIV.  One who last year celebrated 25 years of marriage with a supportive spouse.

Vignette No. 2
A few weeks ago I met a person working in our district of Lalitpur with an agency that works to break the transmission between HIV positive mothers and their unborn children.  You do this by testing every woman who is pregnant, and then both working to get the woman on the life-saving ART meds as well as giving a special dose at birth.  I asked him how many women they had detected in the last few months in the district.  His answer shocked me.

"We found one in August" he said.  One woman.  Only one.  In the whole district.  And that too 3 months ago.  None found in the following months.  I know that maybe not all the women were tested for HIV.  But to have such a low prevalence is nothing short of a miracle.  I am so grateful.

Vignette No. 3
As a family we returned to Mumbai for the first time in 3 years last month to be part of our church Family Camp in Khandala.  We were looking forward to meeting old friends and to being spiritually refreshed.  I didn't expect to run into a miracle.  What I saw was that so many of those of those present at the camp, literally dozens of people, were there because of HIV.   Some were HIV positive themselves (including teen-agers).  Others were kids of some of our HIV friends who had passed away in years past.  Others had been caregivers.  All were enveloped into the church.  All were part and parcel of the 300 plus lovely people who were attending the family camp.  The beauty of it was that it was all so normal.  No trumpets blown, no special fanfare.  People whose lives had been ravaged in the past now part of a family.

So here we are at the end of World AIDS Day 2018.

We are so glad that God has heard so many prayers over the years.  We are so grateful for the global roll-out of ART medications.  We are so thankful for the many, many who have worked on the issue over the years.  Every bit counts.  A small shout-out is in order to our past and present colleagues at Jeevan Sahara Kendra, Shalom Delhi, Salvation Army, the CORINTH network, CANA, Judah Trust, AIDS Hope and many others!  

Does this mean that there are no challenges left to deal with regarding HIV in our end-of-2018-world?

Far from it - there are challenges galore.  Our colleagues and Shalom Delhi tell us that new people are coming in for treatment all the time.  I still get the occasional phone call from Mumbai, where the caller tells that they are HIV positive, or have a relative who is, and need help.  So much of our sexuality is still very broken.  

But there is also real hope.  And so much progress in so many ways that we have a minor luxury of being able to deal with HIV as one of a spectrum of issues that face our communities rather than a single-do-or-die struggle.

For those of you who have been part of Sheba and my long and winding pilgrimage - which included 14 years primarily focused on working with people affected by HIV - thank you!