Tuesday, 29 June 2010


I saw the old woman crying. I thought she was crying for herself.

Sheba was counselling three ladies in her cabin. The old lady had HIV and had lost her husband over a year ago.

Later Sheba told me that Mrs. Nalli was crying for her daughter Monika. Monika married some years ago and wanted to become a police woman. She was preparing for the entrance exam and it looked likely that she would be selected. She then became pregnant.

Her in-laws wanted her to get the job and were afraid that the child would mean that Monika would not get selected. They forced her to have an abortion.

Two years have gone by. Over the time the in-laws have shifted their demands. Now they want a child. And Monika is not conceiving. The abortion method used was one that should never have been used for a first pregnancy. She is trying to use fertility treatment. As it is so crudely put by so many: "there is no 'issue' so far."

Among the issues and the tissues that were ripped are the fragments of lives. I saw the three women walking on the road later. The old lady and her two daughters. Who can tell from the outside, from seeing people on the street, what goes on within?

What words to say for the pain that marks our broken lives? Sheba held the hands of the broken mother and her broken daughter. Listened. Provided a small safe place for these women express their grief. Looked into the Word with them. Prayed. Monika will be coming back each week now.

No magic buttons. No simple solutions to make everything peachy-keen. But some steps on a road to healing.

Monday, 28 June 2010

Ray of hope

Eknath is not your ordinary pastor. For one he has HIV. For two he is (somewhat) open about his status. For three he has helped organise a network of people living with HIV in a rural part of Maharashtra.

Welcome to a small ray of hope.

Picture from G.Mo's artblog - gmoart.files.wordpress.com/2009/08/green-leaf.jpg

Life is tough. And then you find out that you are HIV positive.

That's what happened to Eknath and Nalini - his wife. Eknath had made a decision to follow Christ as a young man. Filled with zeal he threw himself into the task of sharing his new faith with others. A short training at a simple Bible school for Marathi speakers followed and he and his wife found themselves serving as pastors for a small fellowship of Christian believers.

Things did not go easy. Money was very, very scarce. Disappointments led to choices being made and after some months Eknath left his 'ministry' and pursued a living in other ways.

Then Eknath got sick. He was admitted to a local government hospital with a bad case of Tuberculosis. They tested him for HIV. He was positive. Nalini was tested too. She too was HIV positive.

In those dark hours, Eknath turned back to God. Nalini was there by his side in the hospital, with their infant daughter (mercifully negative) and slowly nursed her husband back to health.

When Eknath emerged from the months of recuperation he threw himself back into sharing his faith - but also enrolled himself in the Anti Retroviral Therapy clinic at the District Government Hospital. Here Eknath found that there were over 1000 others who were also HIV positive - and he became part of a loose network of HIV positive people.

Eknath also shared about his HIV status with other leaders in his Christian group - and they supported him to continue with his pastoral work. One of these leaders put Eknath in touch with us at Jeevan Sahara, and we had the privilege of giving him a training in basic HIV care 2 years ago.

Eknath and Nalini's life continues to be a set of challenges. Money is always in short supply. They run a small dry-goods provision store to help make ends meet - and get a small stipend from the Christian organisation they are linked with. They would like their daugther to study in an 'English-medium' school - but the donations and fees are beyond them.

But this couple are pushing forward.

Several times a week Eknath gets on his motorbike and goes to different villages - meeting people with HIV. As a couple they spend time counselling others like them. Motivating. Organising. Praying.

I was amazed to meet Eknath recently and see that he has been instrumental in getting over 100 HIV positive people enrolled in a government scheme that gives a small pension of Rs. 750 per month to people with disabilities. It seems that having HIV/AIDS has been added as an eligibility criteria for this scheme. The sheer task of getting all the papers in order - and then pursuing the government officials is collossal - and yet this man and his fellow activists have done it!

Even thinking of doing something similar here in Thane seems well nigh impossible. To get a single paper needed (ration card / below poverty line certificate / disability certificate to name just three) presents a daunting task of dealing with corrupt local government officials. To do so for so many...

Nothing is impossible, however. And Eknath has shown what can be done - even when it seems undoable. Hats off to Eknath and Nalini - and who knows how many other silent and unsung heroes out there. These are people who are turning back the tide of HIV - by ministering to and advocating with those whose lives are already swirled around by the disease.

What a deep privilege for us to play a small part in this big picture.

Friday, 25 June 2010

Starting a day

How do we start a day?

It stretches before us. Empty. Uninhabited. Waiting for our footsteps to explore it as our gentle (or harried) friend Time takes us through it.

Do we remember our Maker as we wend our way through this 24 hour slot?

At Jeevan Sahara we try. Each morning we take some time to sing praises and encourage each other from what God has been telling us in our own reading of the Bible. Turn by turn. We hear different voices - and are so often provided with key thoughts which accompany us as we tunnel through the experiences that this day has to offer us.

A short prayer for some of our Positive Friends and for a local church (again on rotation - there are far more than the 30 days in a month allow of course) and then we disperse to the tasks at hand.

Wednesday, 23 June 2010

Trumpet pictures

Just look at the little fellow. Who says this world has lost hope when babies as beautiful as this are still arriving!

Welcome, little Shofar Evangel Ramesh!

You have just emerged into the bright lights of this wonderful world. We will be celebrating the 16th of June from now on - and each year you will understand more of what we are celebrating about.

In the mean-time - enjoy! Your Mummy and Daddy are looking after your every needs. Every little cry and wimper from you is so precious to them - they are at your beck and call. Feeding you. Cleaning you. Carrying you. Putting you to sleep. Talking to you. Singing to you. Staying up late. Getting up early. Swerving everything else around a little pretty maelstorm called Shofar!

And then you have your wonderful sister Frankie! She is so delighted to have a brother - and what a beautiful brother at that too! Here you are - all 3.5 kgs of you being held in the arms of your sister. How strange and wonderful for her to be holding you - a life - a boy with purpose. Yesterday she used to play with dolls. But you are so different. It might take a little while for Frankie to get used to you Shofar - but you are going to have a lot of fun with such a great older sister!

Shofar, your Thatha and Ammamma are trying to come to see you as soon as possible. For some reason - the people at your consulate in Hyderabad are taking their sweet time to give your grand-parents an interview. Maybe if you cry loud enough the consulate uncles will give the visas sooner? Should we make a youtube video and send the US consulate a link?

In the mean time all your cousins on the other side of the world (that's the junior Eichers and Joanna and Anmol!) have been ooohing and aaaahing at your photos. We have prayed for months and months - and now you are hear. How lovely to see our prayers answered in who you are!

Your Mummy and Daddy have chosen a very unique set of names for you. You can be sure of this. There is no one else in the whole world. In the 6.5 billion people who live on this beautiful blue ball - with a name like Shofar Evangel Ramesh. Your uncle Andreas Daud Eicher (whose name is pretty unique too) will guarantee that. Just like there is no one called Frankincense Graceola Ramesh! Hooray our little trumpet for having such creative parents - who have marked you apart from birth with your unique moniker!

Monday, 21 June 2010


Today is summer solstice. The longest day of the year. The day when us Northern-Hemisphere-wallas get the maximum amount of sunlight.

It should be the hottest day of the year - but it isn't. At least for us in the Indian Sub-continent. We have the monsoon to thank for that! Without the monsoon we would be like the Sahara desert. Literally. India lies at the same latitude as much of North Africa. Without the great seasonal wet - we would be so very hot and arid - that nothing would grow.

A colossal amount of rain is dumped over India thanks to steady winds that bring moisture off the Indian Ocean. These winds also distributes the huge masses of moisture as steady rains all over the subcontinent. Being on the west coast - Mumbai (and Thane of course) get huge precipitation as the clouds hit the shore. Since Mumbai is a long peninsula - basically reclaimed from 7 original islands - and since most of the city is virtually at sea level - each year the place floods - often at what seems to be the slightest down-pour. The reason is simple - when the sea is in high tide - whatever storm water is getting flushed down the sewers (even when they work) - meets the sea - and comes up on the streets!

Nothing new. Growing up in Mumbai we used pray for rain - so that we would get a school holiday declared. I remember waking up on some mornings hopeful that my prayers were answered - seeing a pool of water forming outside our house in Nana Chowk - only to be told by my parents that we were going to school anyway. Raincoats came on and out we went into the wet.

To my parents horror - we used to actually love 'swimming' in the floods when they really covered the compound with knee deep water. Looking back now I see my exuberance with horribly adult eyes.

But the constant streams of water did actually change the compound to a small wonder world. A few areas had tiny pools of water where we could see tadpoles grow. We explored small rivulets and made dams.

Coming to Thane just under a decade ago we met a dear old man in our house church - Uncle Dhanawade - always prayed for rains. Each year I remember him praying for rains. Uncle has been promoted to glory - so these days as the monsoonal rains start falling (and especially when they stop for a few days in between) - I remember Uncle Dhanawade's prayers.

Last year was almost a major drought year. The signs were ominous - especially early in the monsoon as most of north India was not getting enough. We prayed. Things changed.

I am praying again this year. For all the flooding misery that Mumbaikers will have to go through in a normal monsoon - our dear country does need rain. And more, not less.

The LORD will open the heavens, the storehouse of his bounty, to send rain on your land in season and to bless all the work of your hands. You will lend to many nations but will borrow from none. Deut. 28.12

Sunday, 20 June 2010

Budding cooks

A sample of tasty treats made by Asha and Enoch with help from aunty Ethel who had come over for lunch after church today.

While they look delicious - these ones are not yet edible - being made of modelling clay. Asha is starting to learn the amazing arts of cooking (she has an excellent teacher in Sheba) and we were treated to Asha making and serving dosas for us yesterday. The dough ('mau') and coconut chutney was made by Sheba beforehand. Asha then spread the dough thinly on the pan and flipped the dosas (under the supervision of Sheba) and served them hot to us at the table.

We live and learn! Hooray for the budding cooks!

We look foward to many tasty treats in the years ahead.

Saturday, 19 June 2010

The tale of bodies

This is not for the faint of heart.

Yesterday's papers had front page photos of security forces emerging from the jungle. They were carrying wooden poles between them - and on the poles were trussed the dead bodies of the Maoists that they had killed in the gun battle.

Among the bodies recovered were 3 women. Two of them appeared to be in their late teens.

The inference in clear. These be beasts. Government officials are on damage control - stating that after a person has been killed - that they should be honoured - with the minimum that they be brought out on a stretcher.

The operation took place in Lalgarh a part of West Midnapore district in West Bengal - and is part of an on-going struggle between various factions of Left-wing Extremists on one hand, and local political forces and state security agencies on the other. No one is given any quarter. The fighting is sporadic and brutal. This particular episode is being called a major victory against the Maoists as an entire squad of 15 armed members were killed in the Ranja forest.

Over the last few months various factions of the Maoists have shown spectacular and horrifying efficiency through multiple strikes which have left scores of dead security forces. The most prominent ones were the massacre of 76 paramilitary troops in the state of Chhattisgarh in April, and the horrifying deaths of over 140 civilians in West Bengal when a passenger train was derailed by sabotage only to be hit by an oncoming goods train in May.

We seem to be in a new phase of the decades old struggle across the dry forested areas of Central India.

On one hand, the Maoist forces have become entrenched across fairly large swathes of the vast hinterland. Given poor policing (hardly better than in colonial times - some would say worse) and a local political class that is riddled with corruption at every level - the Maoists have managed to carve a niche for themselves. Many of the local villages end up 'sheltering' the Maoists. But do they have much of an alternative. Much of the current struggle draws on guerrilla techniques of recruiting children, imposing their own taxes, developing rough justice courts where the 'guilty' are tortured and executed. In addition, the Maoists can only look north to the recent history of Nepal to realise that it is possible to control large portions of the countryside for years - and force the politicians to jump to their tune.

Make no mistake. These Maoists are not folks in college coffee houses - discussing the finer shades of Fabian socialism as opposed to Trotskism. These are men (and some women) who are willing to kill - and who do.

On the other hand, we are seeing an increased determination by different levels of security forces to move in and eliminate the Maoists. In Chattisgarh the Salwa Judum movement has armed local groups to directly fight with the Maoists - along with various levels of paramilitaries. In West Bengal the Marxist (!) but elected state goverment has armed its local cadres and to go in and finish off the Maoists together with the various police forces. Nationally the Centre takes LWE (Left Wing Extremism) very seriously - and is linking together various state forces through Operation Green Hunt - a coordinated offensive against the Maoists.

Throw in a constant string of insurgencies in Kashmir and in the North-East - and a set of bombings from various outfits (most often jihadist or so it seems) - and we have a situation where ever higher levels of violence are reported - and ever higher levels of counter-violence are being sanctioned.

All of this plays itself out rather faintly on the windscreen of metro India. The economy is booming - despite a global cooling of sorts - and a generation of aspiration means that all things success is the mantra of the day. When a spectacular Maoist strike takes place - it appears on the front pages and the TV channels sputter to life about how bad everything is and what should be done. Within 48 hours of the event things go 'back to normal'. Cricket, film star gossip, endless speculation about various political pairings, the weather, exam results - these are the things that colour the daily lives of aspirational India.

The Maoist violence actually questions the very fabric of our state. Despite our regular 5 yearly election cycles at almost all levels of government - we are dealing with a fundamental failure of civil society. The growing use of the gun (or sickle) points not only to an escalation of violence since the state has started moving in through Operation Green Hunt etc. - it speaks to the very core of who we are as a country. There is such a huge disconnect between the basic set of justice deliverers (our local police constable for example) and what every citizen of our country should be receiving - the right to life and safety and security.

The bodies that we see - being carried like some kind of jungle game that has been successfully hunted - or lying on the ground with a crumpled pamphlet accusing them of some 'crime against the people' - these are unacceptable in any sense of a civilisation. These dead bodies speak of the war within that rumbles on.

When will the killing stop? When will justice flow like a river and righteousness like an ever-flowing stream (Amos 5.24)?


Tarun has finished his class 10. He passed and is currently working to earn a bit of money by delivering milk early in the morning before he goes to school. He is small for his age. Both his parents died by the time he was 8 years old.

He is also HIV positive.

Anjali has not finished class 10. She dropped out of school 4 years ago. After her parent's death she has been living in limbo - hiding inside her room. Her brother - who is negative - is working at odd jobs. Her uncle does not know what to do with her. She has repeated eye problems.

Anjali is 16 and has HIV.

Martin is 14. His father died of HIV. His mother has HIV too - as does he. He has been taking HIV medicines now for a few years. His sisters (both HIV negative) have both eloped. One came back and then lived through the tragedy of her husband committing suicide.

Tarun. Anjali. Martin.

The new face of HIV. A generation of children who are growing into adolescence and living with the disease thanks to the dramatic improvements in life-expectancies that anti-retroviral medications have brought.

The meds are great at keeping the virus down - and letting battered immune systems rebuild - and function as they should - even for young people.

But the meds are not fairy-tale pills which you can pop and suddenly your whole life is changed.

Our young friends are growing up with a landscape of loss around them. Most have lost a parent - if not both. Many are in family situations that are broken at best. Some have taken on the roles of parents for younger siblings.

The poverty that most of our young friends are living through is not incidental either.

And then there is the universal challenge of growing through adolescence itself - with all its joys and pangs.

We are dealing with a landscape of change which is quite different from what things were like when we first started working with HIV/AIDS. In those days we were mainly doing palliative care for dying adults - with the occasional child who was dying.

Now we have a slowly growing generation of HIV survivors - but ones that are not done with HIV. Rather, these young people are growing up with the complexity of HIV in their lives - and the damage that is has wreaked in their families.

Hari - an adolescent friend of ours who is living with HIV recently had an argument with some of his friends. He then came home and tried to hang himself. The neighbours somehow realised what was going on and broke in - and saved him.

His landlord threw this boy and his bother out of the tiny room that they were renting. But after much pleading allowed them back in.

No easy solutions. What do can we even say to a young boy who has deemed life too harsh to continue living?

What can we say other than try and listen. Try and remind each one of our young friends just how precious they are. Just how valuable each day is. Just how much God cares for them.

No magic buttons to press. No magic pills to pop.

But what we do have is hands that can touch. Ears that can hear. Legs that can walk alongside.

We have homes that can be opened, hearts that can be broken, lips that can speak words of life.

Friday, 18 June 2010

Something to bite into

Everyone loves cakes.

One could argue this - but one of the greatest contributions to world cuisine for which we have to thank the Americans for is the cupcake.

Small. Moist. Sugary sweet. Tart. Decked up in powder blue with sprinkles on top. Always room for at least one more.

American cup-cakes are in Mumbai. Thanks to the good folks at TH Bakes. For those of us living in Mumbai-land cupcakes and other lip-smacking fare is just a phone call away.

And it is all for a cause. More than that. It is for real changes in real people.

Our good friends Bennett and Bernie David are changing lives in Navi Mumbai through an amazing work called Tender Hands. Tender Hands works with children in distress and provides a residential home for them to make a change in their lives. Among the precious children that Bennett and Bernie and the team are pouring themselves into are kids from families that we have ministered to throgh Jeevan Sahara.

There is just so much that can be done.

Kudos to the team at TH Bakes for developing high-quality products. Their bakes are tasty treats - and are also good for the heart - the 'real' heart of course.

How about you - do you have an idea that can make a change? Are you still sitting on it and not moving forward? Now is the time.

Lets get off our seats and get moving!

Thursday, 17 June 2010

Welcome Shofar!

There are a lot of horns out there! Living in the city - though in a mercifully 'green' part of Thane - our lives have a constant back-ground din of various car horns going off - partly in heed to the ubiquitous "Horn, OK, Please" which adorns the back of almost every truck in India!

We love to drive with our horns. Its a way of telling people "I am here - move out" and in general announcing our existance!

A few hours away from us by flight, thousands of happy football fans are blowing the dreaded vuvuzela to celebrate their teams exploits in the ongoing World Cup 2010. Since the games have been rather low on goals so far - most commentators spend plenty of time talking about the racous buzz that thousands of these fine plastic trumpets cause (you can click on each of these pictures for a sample of the sound).

But yesterday history was made for the Eichers - another cousin joined the ranks - this time in far-away Arizona! The 16th of June 2010 saw the birth of 'Shofar' - born to Sheba's older sister Daisy and Ramesh and to the delight of proud sister Frankie (10 yrs)!

The shofar is of course the ram's horn that is blown by the people of the Book! We trust that this little boy (born 3.5 kgs - at 1 PM) will be a trumpet of truth and love!

Enoch is overjoyed to have another boy cousin.

Score so far:

Girls: 5 Frankie, Asha, Joanna, Anmol and Anjali

Boys: 3 Enoch, Ashish and Shofar

Of the three families with 2 kids - all have a boy and a girl apeice now!

Wednesday, 16 June 2010

First day, first show

The books are bought. The pencils sharpened. New ID cards (temporary) made. Shoes polished. Bags packed. The big day has come.

Actually it came on Monday. The rains came too. Water poured down from heaven and the kids (with their parents in tow) poured into the school.

Our two stepped into 4th standard (Asha) and 2nd (Enoch).

They were supposed to be wearing their new uniforms - but the cloth merchants who are the monopoly suppliers for the school (you can just imagine the sums passed under the table to be able to outfit 7200 students) messed up so royally and so the school allowed the old ones to be worn for another few days.

January 14th thus saw them decked out in the blue and whites from last year (we had bundled them up to be given away - and brought them out for their last hurrah).

But this morning they were clad in their new uniforms:

There is one big advantage to wearing uniforms - it cuts out the constant one-up-childship of preteen mini-fashionistas. The choices for dressing up are simple - normal uniform or physical education uniform (white t-shirt with white shorts).

The first 3 days of school have been gratifyingly good. The kids do love school and have been reading all summer. Now we have a stream of information about their new teachers, friends, what they heard today, what they will do tomorrow. For us as parents it is a joy to step into the halls of learning again - through our miniature selves in Asha and Enoch.

A big breath. A prayer. And they are off into the adventure of learning that this year has for them. Hooray for school!

Monday, 14 June 2010

Identity games

Germany played a triumphant game of football last night. They ran rings around the Socceroos. Ripped delicious passes to each other. And scored more goals that any of the games in the World Cup so far. Four goals to nil was the damage at the end of the night. It could have been much worse.

This from the youngest team in the tournament (avg. age 25.3). The youngest in German history since the 1934 world cup. A team that the pundits had written off as far too inexperienced. Far too lame (the captain's name is 'Lahm'). Far too second-rate and bereft of their highly paid EPL talismans.

In this game at least, this team both sparkled individually as well as played together superbly.

What intrigued me is how different this team has been to the previous ones. Germans usually play with white shirts. At least in my memory, the vast majority of players have been as white as their home strip. Take a look at this recreation from a film about the 1954 world cup triumph in Bern:

Caucasians all around.

Now take a look at the names of the players for yesterdays match:

Playing 11 - Neuer, Friedrich, Badstuber, Lahm, Mertesacker, Khedira, Schweinsteiger, Ozil, Podolski, Klose, Muller
Subs: Wiese, Butt, Jansen, Tasci, Boateng, Aogo, Trochowski, Kroos, Marin, Kiessling, Cacau, Gomez

A full 11 German players could be playing for other countries ranging from Poland (Klose, Podolski, Trochowski), to Tunisia (Khedira), Turkey (Tasci, Ozil - who was sparkling), Bosnia (Marin), Spain (Gomez), Nigeria (Aogo), Ghana (Boateng - his brother who grew up with him in Berlin chose to play for Ghana and they are due to meet on opposite sides in the last group match), and finally Brazil (Cacau who scored a goal the first time he touched the ball in the game). As I understand it, other than Cacau (who emigrated from Brazil a few years ago) - most of them were born or brought up in Germany - and consider themselves absolutely German. But with twists. Ozil doesn't sing the national anthem at the beginning of games. He speaks words from the Koran. Klose and Podolski never sing. And never will. But all seem to identify themselves as Germans - though not perhaps as the Germans of other generations.

It seems to me that the national football team offers a glimpse into the Germany of today - which is far more multi-stranded as most of us outsiders think. Many cities have 20-30% of their population made up of folks who are not teutonic (if there ever was such a thing in the first place - given the wide variety of people movements over history).

Ozil and Cacau celebrate Cacau's goal

Now lets shift the scene a little bit. OK, a lot.

Besides the issue of why we can't get a football team together that can take on the world (when Slovenia and Slovakia can). Others have commented enough on this - and usually bring out the fact that India did qualify in 1950 but were not allowed by FIFA because they wanted to play barefoot (!).

Lets look at our dear country of India with its billion plus people. Hundreds of languages. Vast teeming crowds. Multiple cuisines. Ancient histories. Modern acquisitions. Wealth being generated. Aspirations risin'. Who are we actually?

We don't even allow the poor Amitraj family (bless their dear US-citizen hearts) to represent India in tennis. Let alone see folks who may be from other places take on the tricolour as their own.

I am often asked whether I am a foreigner.

"Why?" I reply (knowing full well what the answer will be, of course).

'Because you look like a foreigner'

"So do you" I reply

'Me? No, I am Indian' says my inquisitor - sometimes with a slight shock in his voice

"Oh" I reply "You look just like a Pakistani to me"

End of conversation. I usually point out that my national identity is not in my skin - but in the choices that I make.

How do we get beyond the tribal substrate that binds us? How to build a national identity that is inclusive - when so many of our folks don't even feel Indian to begin with? Almost the entire North East for example. And the rest that do feel 'Indian' inevitably are more concerned about their own language, tribe, community, caste than something as abstract as a national identity.

I think we have quite a bit to learn from the current generation of Germans when it comes to nation-building. All this from watching the beautiful game being played beautifully. By the Germans of all people!

Memory Game

One of my childhood relics which we still use is a small but delightful game which we call the 'memory game.' It consists of a small army of square cards - with 59 pairs of brightly coloured pictures. The cards are turned over to conceal their respective images and vigorously mixed around. The players then take turns to turn over two of the cards. If both cards have the same image they keep the pair. Otherwise they turn them over while the other players try hard to remember what is where.

I don't remember when we got our family set - but it was at least 30 years ago. The cards are clearly worn. Though many of the whimsical pictures continue to delight - this German set has a major advantage for us Eichers: the back of the cards - which is supposed to be a uniform pattern - is anything but. A number of the cards have clear wear and tear which over the years we have memorized (inadvertently of course! - I am shocked that you might think otherwise). On the occasions that we have played with guests we have sometimes purposely not taken cards because we knew what was beneath them.

It is clearly time for a new set of 'memory cards.'

My mind recently went back to a magical summer when I was 8 years old. Dad took me on a special trip. He was visiting friends in Sweden and Finland - and speaking at local churches. I was to go along with him as a special treat. Mum, Stefan and Premi stayed back in Germany - with my grandmother I think.

We drove up through Denmark and then took the ferry to Sweden. There we drove on to the Strom family. They had been in India with OM in the 'early days' and had a son called Stefan who was my age. We hit it off well. So well that I did not want to go on with my Dad to Finland. I wanted to stay with my friend. Dad allowed me to and I spent what must have been about a week or so with the Stroms.

It was a magical time. Full of cycling in the forests and picking blue berries, of eating and eating (more than kids in an Enid Blyton book), of practicing 'pole vault' in Stefan Strom's back yard, and of watching the Wimbledon finals on a black and white TV - a group of fanatical Swedes cheering on the victory of their favourite son Bjorn Borg - while one caucasian Indian quietly supported Jimmy Connors - not that I had ever seen a tennis match in my life before.

In the midst of all of this we visited the home of a lady nearby who spoke German. She had a home-made 'memory game' - made with trains from a German toy train catalogue - stuck on pieces of cardboard. I have always wanted to make my own set - and recently was spurred on by seeing a German photographer do so with pictures of World Cup footballs.

Then the thought came to me - how about doing it with photos. Crop them to squares - fit them in a word document table - and then just print it out - stick it on cardboard - cut them up and then we have our own game!

And so the deed was done. Two sheets of 30 pictures. 4 cm by 4 cm. Down to the local cyber-cafe for a colour printout. Glued onto cardboard. Cut up and played.

Here is one of the photo sheets (you can click it for a slightly larger view):

Family pics. So many to choose from. This sheet of 30 is mainly of pictures from our recent Mussoorie visit. The next sheet of 30 went back a bit in time - and included some baby pictures of Sheba and me as well - as well as almost all the members of our immediate family.

As we played the 'memory game' it took on a new flavour - we were also remembering the people and experiences that we had enjoyed together. Memory both at the level of trying hard to remember where the different pairs of the 120 cards were - as well as remembering precious times and people!

Friday, 11 June 2010

Morning Trek

Mumbai's "green lungs" are the Sanjay Gandhi National Park (which most of us still call 'Borivali National Park').

We are blessed to be living right on the border of this forest land. Yesterday we walked the mere 200 meters from our home to the forest gate - and found ourselves in another world.

Having loved ones visit you is a great blessing - it helps you to taste joys that are around us - but usually not tasted in the hustle-and-bustle of just keeping on!

Victor and Sarah and Joana have been with us for the past week - their first visit as a family to Thane for 5 years. We are deeply touched by their love and care for us.

The heat has been blunted a bit by the pre-monsoon rains that Tropical storm Phet brought our way. The rains which spattered over Thane for the last few days have brought a small carpet of green on the hillside.

We saw new flowers - both having just sprung up - and new to us.

Having started up at 6.30 AM, we were able to get to the top of the ridge with the mandatory rest stops on the way up.

And enjoyed a picnic breakfast at the top, before going back down for me and Victor to attend our JSK morning prayers at 9 AM. A whole days' joy before the working day got under way!

We are created for beauty. What a blessing to have a forest right at our doorstep.

Thursday, 10 June 2010

The promise

Hurricane Phet went 'phut' for most of India. It seems to have wandered off towards Oman. But some scraps of clouds finally came scudding our way making for some pretty dramatic lighting (and a bit of lightning too).

We were blessed with rain - cooling rain falling on our steaming city. And since the clouds rolled in just as the sun was going down - we were treated to a most beautiful rainbow.

The picture doesn't justice to the beauty of what I saw (though you can click on it to see a larger panoramic version). Through the blessed greyness of the final clouds a full rainbow spanned our sky - with an outer rainbow faintly mirroring it.

A long time ago, after a terrible destructive flood God made a covenant not to destroy humankind through such a flood.

Standing on the rooftop and looking out over urban Thane - with its mushrooming high-rises - and seeing that beautiful arc reminded me of the power and love of our Maker.

A God of faithfulness, without injustice, good and upright is He...


One of our positive friends who is being helped by a local church has been calling and asking for money.

What to do?

The needs are real. She is a widow with two small children.

Things are expensive. Cash is never enough.

But there are also important areas of her life that still need to develop.

The church has been helping her financially for 2 years now.

There is still so much brokeness in her life, so much hardness in her attitudes and in the decisions she makes.

We wish there were some kind of secret button to press to make all things turn out right.

Instead we have the long road of relationship.

She brings brokeness. Her distrust. Her dreams. Her confusion and anger.

The church members who are trying to help bring their our own brokeness. Their own struggles. The fragmentary challenges of communicating.

No easy answers. But choices have to be made. Steps must be taken together.

Perhaps some retracing of steps taken already.

Oh Lord. Help.

We trust that He will. And use his faulty-but-being-moulded children to do so.

Monday, 7 June 2010

The beautiful game

On Friday a whistle will blow in Africa. A ball will be kicked by one player to another. Then 22 brightly clothed men will swarm around it for the next 90 minutes. Amidst what promises to be a raucous roar of plastic horns and various other noise-makers, the South African football team will take on Mexico to start the FIFA World Cup 2010.

It all starts with the simplicity of a ball. A round inflated object, kicked with skill and finesse, forms the singular focus of the teams.

The German photographer Jens Heilmann has photographed a match ball from each world cup tournament so far. He tracked down the balls and photographed them against a black background with diffuse lighting to let their shape and texture and scuffs from the game they were used in speak.

I must confess a totally irrational approach to the world cup. My first memories of being hooked were breathlessly reading about the 1982 final when Italy beat Germany in Spain thanks to a man called Paoli Rossi. Front page news on the very black and white Times of India. Having a German mother - and no access to TV - and actually not much exposure to football - all I could do was imagine it in my head.

In later years I managed to get some eyeball time in - with the 1986 tournament memorably watched in great detail at odd hours over the summer holidays in Mussoorie. And so on - usually at odd hours the TV showing breathtaking flowing moves by a new crop of marvels every four years. And at the end one team kissing the cup.

My personal world cup highlight was watching the pre-quarterfinals in Boston in 1994 when Nigeria took on Italy. We were in raptures when Nigeria opened the scoring with a beautiful set of moves - only to see Roberto Baggio bring Italy back with an equaliser in the 89th minute and then take Italy to the next level with a penalty overtime. The beauty and the agony of the game. And to actually be there in the stands - waving my Indian flag (no Nigerian one handy - and no hope that India will reach this level in my life-time at least). Too good.

Another thing I learned from the US world cup. American commentators are horribly boring as they drown you in statistics. We switched over to the Spanish commentators - and though we did not understand a thing. You have to hear the excitement they expressed in their bubbling words every time some touched a ball. And should the ball go through the posts - then we hear the amazing GOOOOOOOOOOOOOOAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAL!

So here we go again. One month of football. How many slices of green will I be able to get in? I don't know since we don't have a TV. But there are always our sports-loving neighbours (all three other flats on our floor have young men who love the beautiful game).

The whistle will blow. The sweat will flow. The vuvuzelas will blow. The beautiful game will show. Ole!

Saturday, 5 June 2010


She married young.

A few years later she got a 'talaq' - a divorce.

No kids.

Last year her ex-husband died.

For the last few months she has been sick.

Yesterday she was in the clinic with her father, brother and sister.

She has tested HIV positive.

She found out that her ex-husband had died of AIDS.

Now she probably has TB as well.

She found out about Jeevan Sahara Kendra from a family in her community. They had also experienced death in their home.

Her brother wants to know if she can be remarried.

No easy answers.

We will work one step at a time.

First to help her understand some of what is going on.

To get her onto the right meds - appropriate for how far the disease has affected her immunity.

To listen and help her work through the next steps in her life.

To talk with her family in a safe space.

No easy answers.

No buttons that can be pushed to see instant happiness pouring out.

And yet what an honour and privilege to work along side this young woman and her family.

Heera (diamond in Hindi) is not her real name.

I chose the pseudonym to express a small fraction of her value.

Thursday, 3 June 2010

Trees of Landour, Mussoorie

silent sentinels

of life on earth.
- Ashrujit Bhattacharjee

Walking in Landour brings much joy and lots of old friends.

The very oldest ones are the magnificent trees that grace this hillside. Here is a collection of some of the stalwarts.

The magnificent deodar (Cedrus deodara) is found along the ridge and the north-facing slopes. These beauties are just below Elcott Lodge, where the path starts descending towards Fairy Glen and Jabbarkhet.

This is view of some venerable deodars are near the "Pepper Pot cave" - up from the ridge of the 'Seven Sisters'. One of the best ways of enjoying a tree is lying on the ground below it and resting from having hiked there (and having a picnic lunch in your belly).

Among the broadleaf trees - the handsome Indian Chestnut tree (Aesculus indica also called Indian Horse Chestnut) forms an excellent counterfoil to the tall deodars. I particularly love the pale green that the chestnut adds to the solemn dark greens of the deodars and oaks.

The beautiful palmate leaves of the chestnut. They also have handsome spikes of flowers that emerge - giving the whole tree a beautiful decorative feel.

By far the most common tree in Landour is the sturdy Himalayan Oak (Quercus leucotricophora). It blankets the south-facing slopes of Landour all the way down to Pari Tibba and below, and is found on the northern sides as well. This oak is commonly called 'banj oak' and forms the bulk of the Woodstock forests. We have a lovely stand on the acre of land that surrounds Shanti Kunj - with the picture above being some of them.

At lower elevations the banj oak fades into stands of Chir pine (Pinus roxburghi). On some of the mountain spurs you can see the chir pines on the ridges (drier) with the banj oaks in the ravines (wetter).

The leaves of the banj are a dull green on top, but strikingly white beneath. When the wind blows through them whole trees can turn silver as the leaves skitter in the breeze. I personally like the golden setting sun best on the banj - it gives the mossy dark stems and the silvery leaves a wonderful aura.

Banj oaks are not just for decoration. They form a vital part of the forest human dynamics of the hills.

This banj oak has been 'lopped' by village women for fodder. The leaves are a major source of food for their cattle. It doesn't look very pretty - but given the right amount of lopping - this 'pole shaped' tree actually is quite efficient in producing leaves - for cattle of course...

A big part of my studies in forestry got a push from a year I spent with my parents in 1989-90 when I volunteered with a local development group which was studying this issue. It was one of the first times that I saw science being used in a rural setting and was a good push towards the social forestry focus I took. A good friend of mine from the Yale School of Forestry and Environmental Studies is the amazing Rajesh Thadani. Rajesh went on to get a doctorate in Forestry and is an expert in oak regeneration (see this article for example).

Mussoorie does not have a lot of wild life (other than perhaps the inevitable Woodstock student - but that is a different genre altogether). We do have the occasional langur. These ghostly grey monkeys are a beauty to see - especially when they swing from oak to oak - or sit pensively on the branch of a deodar.

Mussoorie has a beautiful red flowering tree - the Rhododendron (Rhododendron arboretum). The flowers usually come out in winter - so we did not see many during our visit this summer - other than the odd final bloom hanging on in trees tucked in cold spots on the north-facing slopes of Landour.

A favourite tree for me is the maple (Acer spp. probably caesium). The placed where I see it are towards bottom of the path past Fairy Glen - and also in the Oakville Estate (which is where the above picture was taken).

Most of the Himalayan cypresses (Cupressus torulosa) we see are relatively small since they are a favourite species for the forest department to plant. There are, however, a few giants on the path that goes down past Fairy Glen.

Finally a short look at the Himalayan fir:

These firs are normally only found in very cold parts of the hill. These beautiful Himalayan fir (Abies pindrow) were found in all age groups - from large giants down to small seedlings near Fairy Glen.

Our short look at some of the trees of Landour is over. It should be noted that almost all of these pictures were taken in land owned by Woodstock School. The school properties are a rich treasure of biodiversity - and a blessing to the hillside.

I remember reading a volume of Dietrich Brandis' (the founder of the Indian Forest Service) Trees of India in the Woodstock School library. It is a great blessing that their trees are not just illustrations in a musty old book from colonial days - but living, breathing, beauty givers that are enjoyed across generations.
In the middle of the night the power went off. Inward groan and getting ready for the hot mugginess to descend.

Instead - oh wonders! - the sound of rain-drops! A light rain and the faintest tickle of a cool breeze grace our concrete world.

The next day - looking at the crisp view Asha says: "The sky has washed its face!"

Tuesday, 1 June 2010

Its a girl!

Another reason why we are here in Thane:

Mr. and Mrs. Shristhi had their second child yesterday. Its a girl!

We have seen the amazing way that Mr. Shristhi has been living his life with dignity as a man with HIV. It was wonderful to see their first child come into this world and bring so much light to a set of parents who are living with the disease.

Now we have the joy of seeing a second kid!

Yesterday when Mrs. Shristhi was admitted into hospital she asked for one of the JSK staff to come with her. Her son had burned his hand on some milk recently and still needed care. One of our nurses went - and was helping the family when the new child was born.

We are so glad that our government gives free ART to people with HIV. We are so glad that mothers are tested for HIV as part of their antenatal care - and are given medication that reduces the risk of transmission to their children.

We are also so glad that we have a local Sunday school where the children have saved money all last year - and have donated it to Jeevan Sahara to be able to help mothers like Mrs. Shrishti afford infant formula. This means that they child will not have to be exposed to the HIV in her milk. We have seen how much this helped Mr. and Mrs. Shrishti with their first child.

We are grateful for our JSK staff who regularly meet with this dear family to encourage them. This family has gone through some real challenges - and still face multiple issues - but they are moving forward.

Now we celebrate a new life - and another new hope for this family.

Life worth living.

Mala's story

In the middle of a series of musings on Mussoorie - a reminder of why we are in Thane in the first place.

We got to now Mala (not her real name of course) a few years ago. She and her husband were HIV positive. When we met her she was very sick. Her immunity was quite low with her CD4 cell level dipping down in the 20s. Her husband drowned his sorrows in drink. Things were pathetic.

At one camp that we helped facilitate for their children in Igatpuri - Mala's husband showed up and took the children away half-way through. They fought and were estranged for some time with him taking the children to his village.

After some time they reconciled to a certain extent, but decided to leave Thane and go to another city in Maharashtra - closer to their ancestral home.

We lost touch with the family. Almost.

About a year ago Mala showed up with a terrible abcess in her left hip. It was inflamed and needed surgery. She went back to her town, and her husband managed to get a surgeon to agree for surgery. Mala was not asked about her HIV status - and did not tell.

When Mala was posted for surgery and when the anesthesia started - she was asked if she was taking any medications. In the fog of that time she replied that she was taking Anti-retrovirals - the medication that keeps the HIV levels low. The surgeon was outraged. He did go ahead with the surgery and drained her wound, but spoke many bitter words and immediately discharged her with a pipe to drain out any further fluid.

The surgery put the family back by the sum of Rs. 10,000/-.

After almost a year the wound had finally healed.

Mala's husband then died.

Barely a month later she discovered that she had an abcess on the other hip.

Newly widowed, confused, impoverished. Mala despaired for life. She did not know what to do.

Mala came back to Thane where her mother lives. She came to the Jeevan Sahara Kendra last week while we were in Mussoorie. She showed her new abcess. It was huge. Surgery to drain it was the only hope.

Mala prayed. She said to Jesus that 'I have no other hope - please help me.'

On Sunday something happened.

The whole abcess broke open and all the months of pus inside drained out. Everything.

Mala came to the clinic today to show Sheba. Sheba had heard she was coming and dreaded meeting her - remembering what she had seen the last time.

But this time was different.

The whole area was clean. It was as if a master surgeon had did his work. A tiny bit of pus was left which was easily cleaned and dressed. The wound was clear and clean. The Master Surgeon had indeed done His work.

Mala was so grateful for what has happened.

This is not the solution to all her problems. She still has many deep and grave challenges ahead. But this brave woman has experienced an amazing breakthrough in her time of deep need.

It is such a great honour to work among our friends with HIV.

Holiday reading

OK holidays are over. Back to 'real life'. But what a lovely trove of books were devoured. Asha and Enoch and Sheba were all with head in book for much of the time. Yours truly followed suit. I was able to finish all on my original list and add a few more.

Mystery of the Disappearing Cat - Enid Blyton
The Runaway - Patricia St. John
Charlie and the Chocolate Factory - Roald Dahl
North! or be Eaten - Andrew Peterson

Living the Resurrection - Eugene Peterson
To Sir, With Love - E.R. Braithwaite
Gilead - Marilynne Robinson
Fredrick Booth-Tucker: William Booth's First Gentleman - Harry Williams
God for All, God for Me: Gandhiji's Religious Dualism - A.J. Anandan

Plus the ever-green Tintin books:
Destination Moon, The Calculus Affair, The Secret of the Unicorn, Red Rackham's Treasure, The Crab with the Golden Claws, The Cigars of Pharaoh, Tintin and the Picaros

And back issues of Tehelka.

So how do the books stack up?

Of the kids books the Enid Blyton took me back to the idyllic world of Bets and Fatty and Mr. Goon of the Five Finder-outers and dog fame. I have devoured many a Blyton tome (like the next gen Eichers do these days) but I found my return to her world bordering on the bland. She has an ear for plot - but there is not much meat.

Patricia St.John's exploration of the Jesus story told from the perspective of a Phoenician fisher-boy with a demon-tormented sister gripped me. There was something very fresh in The Runaway about the way the boy meets people whose lives were changed - something compelling that kept me riveted.

Roald Dahl was read with Enoch on the train back. The read was good and the pages kept turning - but I actually had a sense of nausea at his world at one point. Its hard to create wonder that sticks. What struck me was how much of a God-figure Dahl has Willy Wonka as - and finally how thin this all powerful maker ends up. Wonka is able (in Dahl's world) to create the most fantastic confectionery creations (all for sale - and totally against the laws of thermodynamics to say nothing of economics). But Wonka at the end is unable to make something like himself. He is lonely and seeks an heir. The story has him weed out 4 horrible kids and their parents - to end up with young Charlie Bucket and his aged but sprightly grand-dad. And then they are taken up into the sky.

The book of the holidays (in the younger Eicher division) goes to North! or be Eaten. Written by songster Andrew Peterson, the book is the second in the Wingfeather saga. As a fantasy it took me some time to warm to it. I found some of the humour purile. But. it. has. what. it. takes. Beneath the surface is a strong story. A pulse that starts slow but sucks you in. A dark world that yearns for something better. A cast of characters - that grow as the stories unwind. Plenty of hairy situations - and mingled in with everything a sweet longing for truth and beauty.

We had read the earlier book At the Edge of the Dark Sea of Darkness a few months ago - and knew that we would have to read this on a holiday - since once we start the book cannot be put down. North! or be Eaten was all that and more. It ended with a breath-taking set of events that frames everything that has happened till now with wonder.

And now we have a problem. The next book hasn't been written yet. The website says it could be a 5 book series. Or it could be 3. The Eichers don't mind either. We will wait. And read the next book when Peterson is able to pen it. Its not often that we get the opportunity to experience a story - 'as it is written.'


Now to touch the other books.

Living the Resurrection by Eugene Peterson deserves a short review on its own. Suffice it to say that the thoughts presented by this Peterson have been worming their way into me. I very much want to see what he calls "spiritual formation by resurrection' taking place in my life. There is much hope!

To Sir, With Love by E.R. Braithwaite stumped me at first. I read it as a memoir - rather than a novel based on the author's experiences. But having said that I quickly entered the world of a school in post-war Britain where the West Indian Braithwaite is given a job at a school in a dilapidated part of London. The story rung true at a number of levels:
  1. Braithwaite's challenges of being taken seriously as a teacher and scholar beyond the novelty (at that time) of a black man teaching.
  2. The challenges of dealing with hostile / indifferent students whose lives are a lived out mess - and where so little structure and hope was present.
  3. The joy of seeing the students shape and mature and make something out of their lives - as well as at the same time the gradual realisation of the value of each one and the real challenges they faced.
As a novel, I don't think I have come across one recently which has spurred me as much as
Gilead by Marilynne Robinson to consider the sum of a single life. Written in what amounts to a stream-of-consciousness, the novel explores the life of a rural pastor in 1950s America. The book paints an at times bleak and unsparing portrait of this man and the complex inheritance of faith and doubts that he wrestles with. It also is suffused with the gritty beauty that comes from first hand living. Strangely, though the book is very different, I am drawn to remember Tolstoy's The Resurrection with its sorrow but hope theme (and is the novel by the Russian author which is closest to my heart).

Finally - two histories.

Fredrick Booth-Tucker: William Booth's First Gentleman by Harry Williams is a swash-buckling biography of the first Salvation Army leader in India. The scion of a family of indo-anglians, Booth Tucker (full name: Frederick St George de Lautour Tucker) was born in Bihar and joined the ICS, before resigning and taking orders in the Salvation Army. His radical lifestyle and love for Jesus alienated most of his family and much of the British establishment (he was interned repeatedly in the first few months of his work in Bombay) - but his simplicity and focus brought rich dividends. I came away with the inevitable question - what is the sum of my own life? Encouragingly, Harry Williams sketches out Booth Tucker's life not as a perfect saint (as some have done for Mother Theresa for example), but rather as a man passionate to live his life to the fullest extent possible. The accent being on the 'possible.' There is much to learn from seeing the lives and faith of real people.

The last book that I read was a slim volume called God for All, God for Me: Gandhiji's Religious Dualism by a retired IPS officer A.J. Anandan. So much has been written on Gandhiji. Just las week Khushwant Singh reviewed a recent book Naked Ambition in Outlook. So few seem to be genuinely affected by Gandhi's thoughts these days. This is why I found Anandan's look thought provoking. He posits that beneath the syncretistic 'public religion' of Gandhi as the statesman and great leader of our country - lies a deeper and simpler personal religion. This personal religion (the author identifies it with Gandhi's childhood faith) is at odds with the often flowery and ecumenical / interfaith statements that Gandhi made over the years. It confirmed for me the reason for Gandhi's consistent opposition to the core issue of Christian missionaries - his strong opposition to conversion. A close look at Gandhi shows that his opinions are quite similar to those of other leaders usually identified as being in the ranks of the Hindu Mahasabha and other groups that are usually not associated with Gandhiji (esp. after one of the group members - Godse - assassinated Gandhi). The author picks out a subtle but constant denigration of the missionary enterprise - which is very present in today's discourse. What surprised me was seeing how much Gandhi has contributed to what is now the party line almost across the board: "conversion is very bad. If it has happened - then surely it must have been done by force / allurements. etc."

So there we have it. Another set of books devoured. More thoughts to mull through. More lives to consider. Books are magical companions. Stretching across time and imagination, they touch us deeply. We continue in an ongoing open conversation with the authors - and their characters - and our thoughts and lives that we meet in the pages of books.