Sunday, 25 June 2017

Woodstock meri jaan

I have been blessed with several Alma Maters - but the one which shaped me the most was Woodstock School up in Mussoorie.

Today marks 30 years since the 54 of us from the class of 87 walked across the stage at Parker Hall to collect our degrees.  After filing out of the hall we stood in a line and shook hands and were  hugged by our parents, friends and teachers (not mutually exclusive sets).  Most of us had tears in our eyes - and the post-grad line was called the 'wailing wall' in our time.

30 years.  Time certainly flies.

And time also stands still.  I am so very grateful that my parents decided to send me up north in 1985 after I had finished my 10th at the Deutsche Schule Bombay.  Switching back to English was a joy - and the two years at Woodstock were an opening up for me - for which I am very grateful.

As heavy drops of rain fall into the darkness outside our home here on the HBM hospital Lalitpur, 30 years later, a few words looking back.

Our teachers were out of this world.  Each class I took in 11th and 12th grade was very much college level.  Problems of the Modern World with Ranjit Das.  Modern Myth with David Weidman (main text book: Lord of the Rings), Advanced Bio 2 with Max Dass (we memorized the 10 essential amino acids), European Novel with Kathy Hoffman (Darkness at Noon by Koestler stands out), German with Cherry Gough (Romulus the Great)...  the list goes on.  Our teachers poured themselves into us.  As did the dorm parents (the amazing Criders looked after us unruly lads at Hostel).  And then there were dramas and concerts, weekend hikes and the bazaar on Saturdays, the charms of Cozy Corner as we entered our Senior year and cinnamon buns thrown up to us on the balcony of the Quad art room on lazy Tuesday last periods...

A look at our year book (the first colour pages as far as I know were introduced by us in our 'double vision' themed 1987 Whispering Pine) shows one of the finest of men - Adam Azor-Smith - French teacher and life-traveller - who 'chaperoned' Anand Sinha, Steve Satow and myself on our memorable Senior year activity week to Ranthambhor National Park in Rajasthan.

 And then is the amazing experience of being brought into community.  I joined in 11th standard with about 3-4 other 'new kids' (Danny Watters, Irene Winkler come to mind).  Some of my classmates had been together since primary school.  And yet we were welcomed and made part of the bigger picture. I shared rooms over the 4 semesters with a Bangladeshi who grew up in Abu Dhabi, a Bombay-boy whose father owned an iconic hotel in SoBo, a Punjabi whose Dad worked with a large govt Engineering co, a Thai, an American mish-kid, and an England-returned Bihari.

Beyond these room-mates was a further smorgasbrod of nationalities and cultures - into which we plunged ourselves and learned to the precious gift of mutual joy through the beautiful (and some times tear-streaked) experience of building friendships.  Late night maggi noodles, long conversations with the lights out, small study groups slogging on our Bio, post-play sleep-overs, the seemingly interminable slog up the hill to school - a new world for me.  Early in my first semester I realised that I was trying to keep people out - trying to push through on my own strength.  I had a picture of myself as a miserable little prince walled in with concentric circles of barriers.  I realised that allowing others into my life was not a sign of weakness...

Thirdly, I am grateful for Woodstock for allowing me to grow in faith.  Woodstock School in the late 1980s was intentionally Christian with many staff being earnest Christians.  Most students, however, were not followers of Christ - with various religious and irreligious beliefs and practices lived out by my friends.  With no Mummy and Daddy to say 'do this' and 'do that' - it was a time of discovering and living out my faith in a new way.   Having a small sub-group of friends who were also exploring what it meant to know Jesus was mutually helpful.  My first 'church' was a group of earnest guitar-strumming fellow students who met every Sunday afternoon in Bothwell Bank (a long trek far, far up the hill) for Bible Club.  "BC" was the object of much gentle derision (some of it well-deserved) but having to step out and identify who I was and be intentional about Jesus was a huge step forward for me.  It helped to have others to worship and pray with - as it does today 30 years later.  Some of the songs still echo in my mind (sing that sweet, sweet song of salvation...).

And I have not even touched upon mentors like the Satow family who adopted me, and the Hamiltons, and, and....

30 years ago today those two years of my life ended at graduation - and the seeds sown and relationships nurtured have entwined in our lives to give much so flavour and zest over the decades.

Woodstock is an essential part of the at times almost comically complex person I am - Woodstock meri jaan. 

Friday, 16 June 2017

From the mountains to the sea

As we start this post a few words that may seem almost an apology:

Life is not as perfect for the Eicher pariwar  as these pictures may give the impression.  We have lots of grit and regret and stains that do not seem to get reflected much on this blog.  The many weeks of silence will probably point to some of that.  Will we write about it?  Perhaps - when time and tide allow - and the Spirit gives utterance...

In the mean-time, we want to acknowledge the healing virtues of vacation.  The Bible says that in repentance and rest is your salvation.  And here share some of the this journey are some pictures of our life together as a family ... A kind of photo-album of small snippets of beauty that are woven into our lives, which we wish to acknowledge with thankfulness.

A week ago, this is where we were:

Sheba with Tamana - looking down the hill from Flag Hill in Mussoorie.  We were on a day-hike with Mum and Narendra, Pramila and Tamana.   A beautiful sunny day nestled in the midst of clouds and mist - a gift for us plain dwellers to see sights like this.

And walk down paths that seemed like the central aisles of tree canopied cathedrals...

But this vacation took us to another places as well.

From the mountains to the valleys, hear our praises, rise to thee...

This year we are squeezing in a trip to coastal Andhra Pradesh as Daisy and Ramesh and their lovely kids Frankie and Shofar are in India after 2 years...

So it was good-bye to Oma Eicher - for a few weeks at least - since Asha and Enoch need to report back to boarding school in Mussoorie on the 28th of this month.

And on to a marathon cross country train trip.   We started with a rather trying drive down the hill - a huge traffic jam met us near the bottom with SUVs galore jostling through the narrows - and more than one person with affluenza showing that they thought traffic rules don't count for them - and so further added to the jam of jams.

We were blessed to have given much time as a buffer and so we were comfortably in time for our super-swish train to Delhi that nudged out of Dehra Dun station at 5 PM sharp.

Our Delhi sojourn could almost be counted in humming-bird-wing-beats.  A late night dropping-in at Victor and Sarah's place - a few conversations - packing lemon rice for the journey ahead - some prayer and sleep that was almost in the single digits of minutes.  We came in darkness and left just before dawn - with our dear Joanna Grace along with us for the journey.

As soon as we were in the train bunks were set up and blessed, blissful sleep took over.

And that is pretty much what it was like for the next 36 hours as our train took us across the parched plains and badlands of the Deccan Plateau (passing by our blessed Lalitpur but not stopping as we wooshed by in mid-day slumber)...

And with the second day of our train trip (and third on our journey) seeing us enter the land of the Telegus - 

Here be clouds....

... and the blessed beauty of green thanks to what we hope-and-pray is a 'normal' monsoon

As we trundled into Amma and Appa's home in the village of Tungalam, just outside Vishakapatnam, we were so glad to come home again.  Home to one of our safe places.  To a place of quiet and rest. And a blessed down-pour the next morning:

-------------------------------------- x x x ---------------------------------------

And now a few words in praise of food.

It takes so long to make - and seems to disappear so quickly - but what a comfort a good meal is - especially when eaten with those we love.

My mid-riff is showing the evidence of much love (Asha and Enoch have given me a 8 kg loss challenge), but what can you say when your first morning is blessed with a meal like this:

It is a pleasure to be with Daisy and Ramesh - and catch up on their lives being lived out in far-away Arizona.  Amazed that Frankie is about to start as a freshman at ASU this fall - and that Shofar is turning 7 today (more on that in another post).   Time to talk and unwind.  We planned to visit others in the villages, but are just too tired, and to in need of down-time at this point to do that.  Hence we are happily ensconced at Jaba Villa and are doing the essentials of eating, sleeping, reading, talking, praying, eating some more (you get the picture).

Being near the sea, we are blessed with its fruits:

Which means some more serious noshing en familie

As said many a moon ago when Steve Satow and I spent a winter holiday visit to Anand Sinha's family in Patna: sometimes silence at the table is the ultimate complement to a good meal - as all the trenchermen (and women) are blissfully working away at their victuals.

-------------------------------------- x x x ---------------------------------------

And then there is the joy of being in a village.  Yes, Lalitpur is rather rural, but there is something about the good folk of  Andhra that makes you want to go out for walks.  

Colours seem more vivid here.  Buildings are painted with what seems a desire to explore the breadth of the palette.  The vegetable market is Kodachrome-worthy:

Local delicacies - plastic footwear - fish (dried and fresh) are all available to the discerning shopper at the weekly market held in the BHPV campus - a large government undertaking which makes 'heavy plates and vessels' (whatever those may be).

And well, when you are walking around in a market, the purse strings do beg to be opened.  Enoch decided to snack on some 'mini-samosas.'

On our way back we are confronted with the paradox of village life here:

A gold colour Gandhi statue - looking rather grim and a bit forlorn guards the entrance to the village. Next to him is a rather limp CITU flag - one of the communist trade unions from the government plant.  On our way in, a young man had chosen to lean against the pedestal of the 'father of the nation' while making a phone call on his mobile (or was he updating his facebook status?).

Behind Gandhiji the village pond.  Complete with ducks.  And a collection of temples and houses that continue to spring up in many-hued splendour under the grey early monsoonal skies.

Meanwhile, the dogs are asleep... and I have promises to keep.

Sunday, 11 June 2017

In a Mussoorie state of mind...

Many, many moons ago, Summers used to mean a magical trip from Bombay to Kodaikanal.

The long 3rd class train trip through the heat down to Madras Central station, then going over to Egmore station to catch the evening train (meter gauge) towards Madurai.   An early morning stop at Kodai road when we got into the bus for the 4+ hours drive up to Kodai.  Stopping at Batlagundu for bondas and coffee.  And finally the climb up the hills, with the wave after wave of beautiful breezes and the aroma of eucalyptus announcing that Kodai was close at hand...

In 1984 our parents decided that Woodstock School would be the place that they would apply for my last 2 years of school.  Providentially, the doors opened (financially and otherwise) and I spent an amazing 2 years at my beloved WS, and then had Mum and Dad and Premi move up here just before I graduated (Stefan had joined after my first year here).

With Mum and Dad shifting to Landour, and eventually being gifted an amazing cottage which Dad rebuilt as 'Shanti Kunj' and Mum filled with love, Mussoorie has become a second home.  More so with last year seeing both Asha and Enoch dive into their own boarding experience at Wynberg Allen School.  Boarding school has its own rhythms which means that as parents of boarders we are called up what seems pretty often.

Not that we are complaining.  After all, who can get tired of a view like this:

Straight out of the window from Shanti Kunj.

Stunning greenery.  Silence so heavy you can cut it with a knife.

The woods are a constant source of delight. Every where you look you see God's grandeur pixillated and multiplied in ever repeating patterns of beauty.

Even random shots capture what the heart hungers for...

And then there is the Mussoorie sky.  That strange deep blue so different from the haze you get down in the plains.

Most of the time clear, but when the clouds do come in...

But let us leave outward beauty and step into Shanti Kunj.

Every nook and corner has its own charm.  The various artifacts and mementos are bathed with love.   You hardly believe that you are living in it all when you are here - I always feel something like being in a dream whenever I walk through the door with its permanent 'welcome home' sign on it.

We are up in Mussoorie to pick up Enoch and Asha from boarding.  This was done happily.  Wynberg is steeped in tradition - each student had their own hymnbook and the day starts with an assembly where the hymns are sung lustily.

We were glad to find out that both Asha and Enoch ran in the 5 K run this month.  Enoch certainly has enough practice it seems - each day he does 7 K with the other boys in his hostel.  Compulsory. But the actual 5 K run was not, so both Asha and Enoch have taken a small step in the legacy of their uncle Stefan who ran a pretty mean cross-country in his day.

What a joy to all be together around the table at Shanti Kunj - with our happy married newly-weds Manoj and Christina.

We missed their wedding - but all were in for a treat when Sheba cooked her fabulous coconut chicken curry.

Which we followed up with Oma's magnificent apricot cake, with ice cream and black coffee - eating off the floral plates from Oma's childhood.  Beauty continues over the years.

-------------- xxx ----------------

Shanti Kunj is home to so many.  During Dad's time, we had a steady stream of family and friends coming by.  That has continued with Mum playing the happy host and super-mum to a constant crowd.

Yesterday we were joined by our dear brother Narendra Kumar and his lovely wife Pramila and their 10 year old daughter Tamana.

Breakfast this morning was vintage pancakes served hot and fresh off the electric heater - which we received from my grand-parents when they left India after retiring as missionaries.

With today being our last full day in Mussoorie (small tear), we decided we must do at least a small hike.  So we geared up this morning for a walk up Flag Hill.

After the mandatory shuffling about and cooking and packing and repacking and getting all 8 of us present and accounted for, we were ready for the great outdoors.

And so we were off on a beautifully sunny and cool day - so different from the stifling heat of Lalitpur or any of the great tandoori oven that most of North India is at this time (BBC said that a place in Pakistan registered 51 degrees this past week...).

The mighty Himalayan Cedar (Deodar) formed a glorious living cathedral for us as we walked down towards Fairy Glen and Jabbarkhet.

Glorious forests. Greens of every hue.

 You just keep looking in wonder all round you.  Is this real?  Am I alive?

The altitude does remind you of your mortal flesh-and-blood nature - as does the slight film of sweat that any good hike gives you.

And there is always the steady reality of the hills - that when you walk down, you will have to walk up again (and vice versa - every steep climb means a good run down sooner or later).

Here Pramila and Oma walk up the road towards the Flag Hill gap.

 Flag Hill is now a privately run nature sanctuary going by the name of Jabarkhet Nature Reserve.

It was a tiny bit odd to buy a ticket to do a hike which we had done so many times before for free - but we are happy to support conservation initiatives like this - ones that do not only preserve nature, but are also providing employment for local people.

The views continue to be stunning and there did seem to be just a tad more forest vegetation than what I remembered from previous years...

 Any hike worth it salt has to have food - and we had Narendra and Vikram to thank for our spread.  Still warm parathas and alu subji, dahi and cukes.  A feast fit for a king.

And what better place to polish off such nosh as under an oak tree - which post lunch became a nap-site as we lay down and read Jim Corbett's story about the man-eating tiger of Muktesar - a place where I had done my forestry field work in 1993.

A beautiful day.  A beautiful place.  Beautiful people.  

What a life.

Can't we keep living like this forever?  

Someday, maybe.  But there is a lot of work that our loving Master is calling us to do.  And so we reluctantly will be leaving the hillside tomorrow for plains, and work, and all that is in store for us.

Till then we will feast on our memories - and scenes like this:

Au reviour Mussoorie, you remain in our hearts and minds.

Sunday, 2 April 2017

4 dozen sun-spins

Will you still need me, will you still feed me, when I'm 64?

Today I turned 48.  Four dozen years. Three quarters of the way to 64.

48 sun-spins since I entered the breathing world at St. Elizabeth's Nursing Home on Malabar Hill in old Bombay in 1969.  Before humanity stepped on the moon.  While Indira Gandhi was in her first term as Prime Minister.  In the days when the Indian cricket team would work hard to grind out draws in test cricket...

Before, before...

Well lets just look back on this last year with wonder.

Just after birthday anniversary No. 47, we moved lock stock and barrel to Lalitpur after 13 years in Thane.

Saying goodbye to our work at Jeevan Sahara Kendra was hard, as was stepping away from our house church and the many dear ones whose lives were intertwined with ours.

But the most gut-wrenching was not being allowed to bring our foster son Yohan with us.  We were gutted when our request to be given long-term foster-care was refused, and we were served with a police notice stating that we were not to 'take the boy out of the jurisdiction of the child welfare committee' until his case was settled.

We had to leave, and so we parted ways with Yohan, holding on to the hope that the ration would be only a few weeks.  I shuttled between Lalitpur and Thane as we worked our way up the appeals chain - but we gradually saw all the doors shut.   We are still working through the hurt of all of this.

But we are very, very, very grateful that Yohan is in a safe place, where he is being loved and cared for.

He called up today to wish me happy birthday (as did Asha and Enoch) and said that he is taking his medicines exactly on time.  He also talked about his maths test on Tuesday.  A wonderfully normal conversation to have.   We are so grateful to the dear loving folks at BTC who are caring for Yohan with Christian love and commitment as part of the restorative community they are.

We couldn't think of a better school for Yohan too.  We are currently considering our options, but the default one seems to wait till he becomes a legal adult (another 3+ years) for the next big step.  Lots of prayer is in order of course.

Parallel to Yohan's situation we had two other events that meant this year was a challenge.

On arriving at Lalitpur, the convent school which had assured us that Asha's 10th standard admission would be a breeze, balked.  The issue being that they did not offer the optional course of Art which Asha had chosen for her 10th standard ICSE board exam.  We had given all the details to the school earlier, but they obviously did not look at it carefully.   Upshot of this?  We were in Lalitpur but no admission for Asha as the authorities from her Mumbai school took their creaky sweet time to do what was to be done ages before, and the folks here were unable to get the board to make an exception on her part.

But miracles do happen.  God opened the door for Asha to attend Wynberg Allen in Mussoorie - and that too mid-year in class 10...   We were thrilled at this, but suddenly had our dear daughter whisked off into boarding school - something that we did not expect at all.

As the year went on, it became clear that Enoch would probably need to join Asha at Wynberg as well.  We understand that many of the local students need 'Hindi' teaching even though the school is supposed to be an English-medium school.  But what took the cake is teachers using the local dialect of Bundhella ... which even I find hard to understand.

So amazingly we saw Enoch join the boarding ranks in the first week of February, and now Sheba and I are here in Lalitpur with a beautiful but empty home.

And as most of you dear and gentle readers know, this year was the year that Dad was translated to glory.  I am typing this just outside the room he died in, wearing a set of his trousers, knowing that we were deeply privileged to be part of his final months and weeks.

Dad died here on August 13th 2016.  We were privileged to thank the Lord and bury his body at the Landour Christian Cemetery on Independence Dady - August 15th...  He certainly is free now and is clearly rejoicing as he had predicted he would.

Mum is doing superbly in Mussoorie - and we had the joy of hosting her for a month and a half here in Lalitpur too!

As a family, we also were blessed to have Amma and Appa be with us for 2 months last year.  Their full-on involvement in the hospital family and local churches was wonderful - something that we had wanted to experience for many years, and which moving to HBM hospital here made possible.

This year was a momentous year for them too - as they completed the amazing 50 years of marriage together on the 24th of January 2016.  We gathered for a small family get-together on the actual day with Sarah and Peter's families to pray with Amma and Appa (with the idea that we would celebrate in the church when Daisy and family come this summer).

And then there were also the challenges of adapting to a whole new world of work and service.  After years in an urban setting, we are very much in a rural place.  The HBM Hospital is a small mission hospital which is part of the EHA family, with big dreams about being an agent for transformation in the Lalitpur District.

Most of my work this year was focussed on a watershed management and nutritional intervention in 15 villages of the Baar Block of Lalitpur (about 25 kms from the hospital), while Sheba dove into the clinical work at HBM Hospital.  At the same time, we have plunged ourselves into the hospital community, and have been trying to work with our colleagues to develop this place to fulfill our vision of seeking to see people comforted and healed, families flourishing, communities renewed, and nature restored through the love of Jesus Christ in the Lalitpur District and beyond.

We have a long way to go, and this year has taught me much, as well as helping me know that I need to grow so much closer to God and experience His goodness in ever deeper ways.

As we have just finished off our 3rd year of the project cycle, it was encouraging to see that our work has been making impact in the communities we serve.  Farmers who previously had to migrate each year for some months to make ends meet are now able to stay in the village all year round.  Village level groups have started to work together.  There is still so much work to be done, but we are seeing some encouraging steps.

Steps such as made by the farmers' group in Gadiya who are receiving a special drum from us in order for them to start a seed bank.  Last year we had given them 10 kg of wheat seeds and helped them sow it in an innovative way.  Some of the farmers got yields of 400 to 500 kgs from this!  We are asking each farmer who received seeds last year to contribute at least 15 kgs of seeds this harvest so that the group can help even more people next year.

And then there was also the National Prayer Summit for Health, and the Community Lay Health Leaders Training we started, and travels for EHA meetings in Rampur and Chinchpada and, and, and...

Geo-politically I don't recognise this world anymore:  Trump, Putin, Brexit, Note-bandi, Saffron wave...  I have been tempted to fear, but these last few weeks have been precious to me as I realise again and again that God is in total control - no matter who weird things seem to be getting - and He loves us very, very much.

And so this day sees me finish 48 sun-spins and step into a new year.  I am so grateful for my dear Sheba's love for me.  Her patience and hard work in so many areas of our life together, combined with her deep disciplines of prayer and digging deep into God's Word each day have made all the difference.  So many others have come along with us on the journey.  Have been generous in love through prayer, word and practical helps.  Your names are written in the scroll of remembrance in heaven (Mal. 3.16).

Sheba and I spent today fairly quietly together.  A blessed Sunday.  A day of rest and prayer.  I am so grateful for all the blessings this past year has been, and look forward to what is in store.

How good is the God we adore
Our faithful unchangeable friend
Whose love is as great as His power
And knows neither measure nor end

Tis Jesus the first and the last
Whose Spirit will guide us safe home
We'll praise Him for all that is past
And trust Him for all that's to come.

Garden to plate

A long time ago, when we lived in a big metropolis, we would occasionally dream of the simple life.  About living on the ground floor and having a garden.  But that seemed all so far away and impossible.  How would we ever get away from Thane and from all the work that we were entrusted with...

How quickly things changed.

We are now living in a 'city' of 1,30,000 odd folks.  But can we even call it a city?  A town, perhaps...  Lalitpur is the district head-quarters of the district of the same name.  We are a railway station on the main Bhopal - New Delhi line (though many fast trains rush through without stopping at our humble station).  We do have our set of shops and bazaars, and our tallest buildings will be a whole 4 floors high (as far as I can recall).

Our calling here took place at the end of 2015, and today we are in a place where local vegetables are dirt cheap.  Tomatoes were selling for only 5 rupees per kg last month.  Sure, they weren't the big perfect red ones - but they have come from the local farms around us.  And buy them we did.

To make tomato jam for one!

It did not last for long.

But living on the campus of the HBM Hospital in our beautiful Bethel Villa home is literally that Thane dream come true.  We are on the ground floor.  And we have a garden.

And the garden actually produces food.

Not a lot, mind you, but for the first time, we are eating what we have grown.  Our beans have already been made into subji and consumed.  Now it is the turn of the humble brinjal (or eggplant as some call the aubergine).

We have a whole two rows of these beauties right when you enter the gate to our home.

With the sudden onset of summer (almost like a light switch being turned on) we have lots of gardening to do.

Sheba manages to multitask with a phone call from Asha (at boarding school in Mussoorie) and the watering of the plants both being done with aplomb.

 Being a city boy, I am still amazed at the very basic miracle of seeds sprouting, plants growing, and then us being able to actually eat that which has come out of the ground.  What an amazing bit of engineering our Lord has put at our disposal.

So here we have the first fruits of our brinjal crop.  What beauties.

 But those fellows are not meant as ornamental show pieces.  They are destined for the plate.  That batch went off as a gift to a special friend of ours... and another batch ended up like this - part of a wonderful meal with spinach dal and brinjal - potato fry. Yum!