Sunday, 24 April 2011

Shanghai Dreams

Every now and then you get the odd newspaper article saying how creaky old Mumbai should become like swanky, spiffy Shanghai.

Shanghai - with its swish - has somehow taken root in our middle-class subconscious as being the apex of modernity - at least on the Asian side of the world.

I for one beg to differ.

While there is so much that needs to be done. The sprawling metropolitan swathe of concrete that is the Mumbai Metropolitan Region has a long way to go before it measures up to the magnetic pull it has to those who keep thronging the city in search of the promised better future.

But there is one huge area where we trump Shanghai hands down.

It is in the precious gift of freedom.

Over the last week our house church has been organising a public meeting where we wanted to tell people about the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ.

We chose the Saturday between Good Friday and Easter and approached a local school for permission to hold it at their hall. They agreed. We then made some invitations and some inserts which we wanted to put into newspapers to tell people about the meeting.

We did not tell the police. We don't have too. We have the freedom of association, the freedom of expression and the freedom of religion as part of our constitutional rights. These were hard fought liberties which we so often do not cherish.

Most of us approached the secretaries of the co0p housing societies we live in to put up small posters on the notice-boards about our meeting. When I met the worthies in our building they had a small issue to take up with me. "We have been wanting to tell you something for some time" they told me. "Why do you not contribute when we come to collect money for the festivals we organise. It hurts us when you do not. At least contribute Rs. 100. Do not be apart from us." they said.

I have the freedom to give - or not to give. I explained why we don't contribute. I didn't expect them to put up our small posters. But they did.

When we had the meeting, we saw people exercise their rights to come - or not to come. No one from our building came. The choice to sit at home and watch the IPL cricket match which was on is entirely theirs. The 60 odd folks who did come to our meeting (many of whom were our own church members) came entirely on their own volition.

This is hardly the case in China.

Today, on Easter Sunday, there were a flurry of arrests in Beijing. The crime committed? Members of a large 'unregistered' church were trying to meet in a public place. They had been denied permission to meet in their own meeting place - and so some of them tried to meet to worship in a park.

As I have said - and will say again - we have much to repair in our country. But one thing is clear - we do have the freedom to say what we want to change - and the opportunity to do so. We can move (almost) anywhere in the country without permits. We can take up (most) jobs based more or less on our merits (though connections often help). We can vote and hunger-strike and take out processions. We can attend a clearly religious meeting. Or we can sequester ourselves away watching the IPL cricket matches - or the latest bufoonery laced with aspirational ads that our free country offers by way of televised entertainment. But that freedom is itself such a blessing.

Shanghai dreams can wait for me. Give me Bharat any day. Now lets get to work and make it live up to our shared potential.

Busy, busy, busy

Radio silence from this side usually means one thing: we have been busy, busy, busy.

And so we have.

Here is a short list of what the Eichers have been up to in the last 2 weeks:

1. Admitted 3 patients at JSK for inpatient treatment
2. Supervised young volunteers who are eager to help at JSK
3. Hosted teachers and helpers meetings for the upcoming VBS - twice
4. Taught about the life of Christ in a Tuesday night Bible study at the house of our of our staff - twice
5. Organised and ran a full JSK staff retreat at Pune
6. Organised and ran a wonderful network meeting for Christian organisations and churches working on HIV issues in the greater Mumbai area
7. Talked about JSK to visitors - four times
8. Welcomed and oriented the 3 new interns from Union Biblical Seminary
9. Helped plan and run a special public meeting by our house-fellowships about the Death are Resurrection of Jesus
10. Met with church members for prayer every night in the week running up to this meeting
11. Preached the Good Friday service at the Free Methodist Church
12. Supervised our happy twosome as they have started their summer holidays - while their happy parents are still very much at work
13. Led the Lord's Table at our Easter Service this morning
14. Hosted dear friends for the night last night - and other dear friends for prayer and lunch last Sunday
15. Prayed with a brave woman who is suffering from cancer - and prayed with her son about his upcoming marriage
16. Am bone tired. Had stars before my eyes early this evening. Have been trying to catch some sleep to make up for the last few weeks - and am very much looking forward to travelling North to be in Delhi, Herbertpur and Mussoorie for the latter 2 weeks of May
17. Plus the various and sundry joys of keeping the household going.
18. Life is full. Wouldn't have it any other way.

Saturday, 9 April 2011

April 2nd 2011

The white ball flew into the night sky. A beautiful arc. Way out beyond boundary and into the stands.

The country erupted.

28 years is a long time to wait for anything.

Despite all the grime and slime that surrounds professional cricket today here was something to savor.

India are world champions.

Not something we are used to roll trippingly off the tongue. Not something that we hear often.

Given our long hiatus in mediocrity any victory is sweet.

The mind flashes back to 1983. The unbelievable feat of beating the invincible West Indian cricket team at Lords in London.

I was in Bihar at the time and read about it via day-old issues of The Telegraph from Calcutta. With each step that the team made I thought that this was the end. It couldn't get better. We were after all the team that regulalry was battered. That strove to grind out a drawn test match. Where winning was an alien word.

But it did. Kapil Dev's toothy smile, frozen in the black and white shots of the time. Carrying that massive silver cup. A whole new universe opened up. India and winners. Unthinkable till then.


And so we come back to the night of April 2nd - Anno Domini 2011.

The night when the white ball sliced the sky and the fireworks went on and on.

It was the end of a superb birthday for me.

The morning started with flowers and cards and gifts and kisses from Sheba and Asha and Enoch.

Phone calls from Amma and Appa and from Mum and Dad. Blessings and prayers. Isaiah 41.8-12.

Enough for the whole day to have ended right there.

But it just got better and better.

The morning was spent with my dear fellow-elders from the group of house-churches where we worship.

It was such an honour to host them in our flat for our monthly meeting where we shared about what God is doing in the various parts of our family of faith. Each of these dear men are worth their weight in gold many times over. Quietly doing the work of helping move us all forward. We talked and prayed and thought and prayed. By the time 2 pm had rolled around we were all treated to a lovely lunch by Sheba.

Then an afternoon of rest. Cleaning up. Badminton with the kids.

Since our phone lines were down there was no question about 'listening' to the World Cup finals on the internet as we had been doing till then. We had to find a home willing to host us.

The home of Rolly and Doris Jayakar- where one of our house-fellowships meet - was the obvious choice. A call and we had invited us to the 2nd half of the match.

We dressed in whatever blue we could find (not too much in the Eicher household it seems). Enoch's plastic cricket bat and ball (in appropriate flourescent colours) and a make shift turban completed our outfit. We were reading for the game.

When we got to Rolly and Doris' home Sri Lanka had already batted beautifully to get 275 runs on the board. Our men were batting and A wicket was already gone of our dear Indians. As we settled down we saw Sachin Tendulkar edge the ball off a vicous Lasith Malinga ('the Slinga') delivery - into the happy hands of the Sri Lankan captain for another out.

In the bad old days we would have now switched off the TV. Because we knew what was next. Once Sachin was out there was no hope.

But this night was going to be different. This was finally a team.

And so while the camera zoomed in on various celebrities and their spouses burying their heads - we were given a nail-biting lesson in tenacity as Gautam Ghambir and Virat Kohli stuck it out. Intelligent batting. A run here. A shot there. Shepherding their time. Moving forward. When Kolhi went, it was time for MS Dohni to come in.

Our cricket captain has been called 'Captain Cool' for some time. This night we saw why. Playing the innings of his life Dhoni warmed up slowly. A shot here. Another there. Then a four. And another. His bat - so silent for most of the tournament - did the talking. Dhoni started to cramp and had to get medical attention at one point - but he didn't call for a runner - preferring to do it himself.

As our room shouted encouragements towards Wankede stadium, we started seeing the overs tick by, and team India come closer and closer to the goal. Guatam Gambhir ended his brilliant innings just short of a century - but by then our nervousness was slowly draining out as we allowed ever greater doses of belief to seep in.

A few overs later Dhoni faced the Sri Lankan bowler with 4 runs left to win the match and the right to hoist the cup.

His shot went high into the night sky. Far beyond the reach of any eager fielders' hands. Right into the heart of 1.21 billion fellow countrymen who started the partying.

Andi and Anil Sainani celebrate the win

Sheba, Enoch and Asha with Doris Jayakar (pics courtesy of Juanita Jayakar)

It was 11 PM. We had supped with the Jayakars. We went down to get an auto rickshaw home.

There were none to be had.

Everyone was celebrating. People driving down the road honking horns. Fireworks going off. Shouting. Some had their shirts off and were waving around. Flags flying out of the doors of cars and being waved from the backs of motor-cycles (including a few saffron ones - don't know what that had to do with the team).

We walked back home. Cars scooted past with people out to celebrate.

We were charged by a bull.

Yes you read it right.

When we passed a small group of cows - a juvenile bull challenged us with a short charge. I don't think he was celebrating the World Cup win. The crackers may have just been too much for this small group of bovines. We gave the little herd a wide berth and continued our happy wandering home.

We got home just before April 2nd came to an end.

A good day all around.

Two figures

I see them almost every morning.

On my short ride across the lunar craters which masquerade as a road that links my office with the JSK centre.

Two figures. Walking.

One a 5 year old boy. Beside him a lady.

Some mornings the lady is the boy's mother. Sometimes she is another woman.

The boy holding the hand of the lady.

Walking to school. The small pre-school that a local church runs for children of the vicinity.

To every one's eyes this boy is just one of the many who avail of the kind-hearted church.

The lady is just a woman taking her son or ward to the school.

We will call the boy little Thomas.

Thomas was born in a brothel.

His mother has left that world. And is stepping into another one.

The other ladies who take little Thomas to his pre-school have also stepped out.

We know them because they have all come for HIV testing at the JSK centre.

Little Thomas is HIV positive. So is his mother. So are some of the other aunties that he lives with.

When Thomas was 3 his mother decided that she had enough of the 'rehabilitated' life. She told the people running the centre she is living at that she wanted to visit her relatives in the village. They took Thomas and his mother and put them on a train in the main station in Mumbai.

His mother got off at Kalyan station and went back to the brothel.

Thomas was put under the bed while his mother gave herself to her clients.

We remember the dear couple who run the centre telling us about their heartache when they found out that Thomas' mother had returned to the trade.

But they prayed. And so did we. And others too.

One day Thomas' mother decided that she had enough - and returned.

The good people who run the centre welcomed them back with open arms. Prayers have been answered.


And so when I pass by two figures at just before 9 AM on any given day, I know that these are not just any old people.

These are precious, precious people.

Thomas is starting a new life - one that we are proud to have the tiniest part in sharing in.