Summer of 1995 saw me plunge into a new world. Manipur.
I had visited Churachandpur once before - a flying visit with my father and brother in the winter of 1986 when Dad spoke at a revival convention in Mokokchung, Nagaland. That being our first trip to the North East and with Dad knowing so many people - we took the opportunity to visit Meghalaya and Manipur as well.
But in 1995 it was me alone. I was there to help SHALOM with ethnographic research on injecting drug use and HIV risk - the 2.5 months also being my fieldwork for my Masters of Public Health thesis.
It was an amazing new world for me. So totally unlike anything I had lived in before.
And one of my special guides was John Tusing.
The oldest son of Lalremthang Tusing - from a prominent family in the Hmar tribe - John had done his schooling at MCC in Chennai and was hired as a youth educator by the then fledgling SHALOM organisation.
The John I knew then loved people. He loved to talk and meet and mingle. He was a restless bundle of energy - always wanting to do new things.
He would take me for drives in the Red Maruti Omni van of his fathers - down from the building that housed SHALOM on Rengkai road - out to one of the neighbouring villages.
We talked long hours. I was welcomed into the sprawling Tusing clan - and have never really left.
It was not surprising that when I joined SHALOM a year later - with my freshly minted degree as a public health professional - that I was hosted by John's parents - and shared a room with John.
John loved to laugh. He would talk a mile-a-minute - and his large eyes in his big square head were alight in those days.
Many an evening was spent chewing the cud - or being generously fed by John's mother as the 7 months I worked with SHALOM sped by.
|John, his parents and younger brother Diamond - when Mum visited me in Churchandpur with Team Kantata|
The generosity that I received in this home was phenomenal. They adopted me as one of their own. I remember Auntie going to a local marwari to ask for parathas since the Tusing fare was rice at the first meal and rice at the evening meal too. I remember being on the ground floor with the windows shut and the sound of gunfire from paramilitary troops going beserk in the town bazaar after scooter-borne insurgents had killed two their men. I remember the cups of tea at 6 AM in the morning (the sun comes up at 4 AM) and the late night meetings at the local church. I remember being honoured with a sheep on getting my degrees from university. I had finished my studies in January of the year - but the blessed degrees only showed up in the post well past July or so. The Tusings took the occasion to slaughter a sheep for me and call everyone (including I think at least 3 pastors to pray over me) to a feast!
I have never been back to Churachandpur - but the wonderful people that I got to know there will always be part of me.
Sadly, I lost track of John. He quit SHALOM sometime after I left and dabbled with many things. He got married and had kids and the next thing I knew he was in Bible School in Bangalore. We exchanged the occasional email - and then things petered out.
The last time I met John was in 2000. Sheba and I were at Vellore - and we found out that he was there too. John had come to be with his mother for her chemotherapy. We met briefly in a lodge where they were staying. Auntie looked tired but determined. John had his big smile. Auntie won her battle with cancer. John's battles were on a different playing field.
|John and family in 2008 - they were later blessed with another son|
The news from the last few years was sketchy, second-hand and proved to be a muddled picture. John always lived larger than life. He refused to kowtow to the normal, the run of the mill. I understood that he married and had three children. I also heard that he made a string of questionable decisions. John's appetite for life was mirrored in his large physique. His body reflected his soul.
The circumstances are hazy but it seems John had suffered from various ailments - and that his body had just given out.
John was all of 36.
By any standards his life was far too short. By any standards the bitterness of potential unfulfilled is written all over John's time on this planet.
My heart goes out to Uncle and Auntie Remthang as they will be looking on the burial of their eldest son. My heart aches for John's wife and children who face the rest of their days without him. To his brothers and sister and the larger crowd of Tusings and Pudaites and other kinsfolk who now only have him as a memory. I know that our Lord has shed tears too over John's short life - and his arms of mercy are very large. I also know that our Lord knows what it is like to lose a loved one into the arms of death - and that He himself entered that dark gate ... but that on the third day He smashed it once and for all!
Every death asks a questions of those left behind. What about me?
Each man's death diminishes me,
For I am involved in mankind.
Therefore, send not to know,
For whom the bell tolls.
It tolls for thee. - John Donne
One of the many memories of Churachandpur is the tolling of the bell when someone dies. I remember it as people beating on a metal bar - with each stroke being tolling a year. Older people had longer tolling. This was before mobiles - and was often the first way people found out who had died.
I wonder if the bell tolled today for John. As the all-night prayer meeting and singing time - the Lengkhawm is likely to be underway - I wish I could also be there singing the sad slow songs of loss - and hope in an eternal home. I wish I could be with the family as John's body is laid to rest. And I wish I could hear the words of the pastor preaching about the hope of the resurrection.
Since I cannot be there 'in the flesh' in Churachandpur - I am holding a small prayer vigil at this midnight hour here in Thane.
Then all the colours will bleed into one
Bleed into one
Well, yes, I'm still running
You broke the bonds and you
Broke the bonds
Loosed the chains
Loosed the chains
Carried the cross
Carried the cross
Of my shame
Of my shame
Of my shame
You know I believe it
I believe it, I believe