Wednesday, 27 November 2013

Leaving Ccpur - Shillong whirlwind

Thanks to an assassination, our long-awaited time in Shillong was cut in half.  

We were all set to head over to Shillong on Friday morning - having packed up and said all our good byes in Churachandpur the night before.  After waking up and doing some last minute packing, we heard the first news of possible trouble early in the morning.  A prominent politician from one of the Meitei parties had been killed.  A 24 hour bandh was called to protest this.  5 AM from Friday morning to the next day.  Our local hosts had only found out about this in the morning newspaper.

Then the news came from town was that no vehicles were on the roads.  Phone calls to Imphal and other sources to look into options.  Could we go another way?  Initially that seemed likely - though about twice the distance.  But then seasoned folks said it was not possible - since the aggrieved party had cadres in all the plains areas and would most likely enforce their 'bandh' with violence.   Could we get an escort from the paramilitary forces?  We sent out feelers, including one of the Tusing clan who is an officer in one of them.  Calls to high places revealed that a vehicle was already burning on one of the roads - and the security forces were not interested in 'provoking' the bandh-callers.

combinations and permutations... can we get over to Imphal for the flight?

Finally we had to bite the bullet.  We called up the Jacob in Imphal and asked him to postpone our tickets (at a hefty price of course) and so we spent an extra day in Churachandpur - and cut our already miniscule 2 day visit to Shillong down to a single day...

Saturday dawned pale and lovely.  The only problem was that we were supposed to be in Shillong for the sunrise.  Instead we saw the sun go up over the hills of Churachandpur instead.

No further bandhs and so we after a leisurely breakfast with Dr. Lalzakung Tusing and Auntie, we did the finally stuffing into our bags and then waited in the morning sun for our intrepid driver Robul Pudaite and his sister Pui to pick us up in their jeep.  

A final prayer and we were off!

As we drove past through the plains we saw farmers harvesting and treshing the rice crop.  The villages and small hamlets along the way, which had seemed so fresh and new just a week ago were now rolling back in reverse order as we came closer and closer to Imphal.  

After passing Imphal, we had a bit of scenic tour of the countryside before we found Jacob Tusing's CRPF camp and finally met his family - one of the few of the far-flung Tusings that we had not met till then.   Jacob and Din welcomed us heartily - and their orderlies cooked up a storm of hot fresh chhole bhature - which was just the fortification we needed for our delayed hop over to Guwahati.

Over to Imphal airport which has just become an 'international' one with flights to Myanmar slated to start at the end of November.  There was a shocking smell of urine that pervaded the whole passenger area after security as we waited for our Air India silver bird to drop down from the sky.

When it finally came we walked out to meet it.  Our last steps in Manipur for how long?  Hopefully not another 17 years...

As the golden sun set at the still strange time for us of 4.30 PM, our plane climbed into the deep blue skies that sheltered darkening Manipur and winged us over to Gauhati, the capital of Asom.

Landing in Asom we were met by Mr. Peter Thapa - a genial bear of a man who drives a super taxi to and from his home-town of Shillong.   Peter is also an elder in the Nepali-speaking church he has helped found. We were soon driving through the darkness and traffic of Gauhati and being entertained by Peter's accounts of the Nepali community in Shillong - and sundry information about Shillong and all points around. 

The 130 kms between Gauhati airport and Shillong took us up to the hills into the darkness - and in between what seemed an unending procession of smoke-belching trucks grunting their way up an incline which seemed to be one long construction project.   Peter told us that most of the road was the major artery for road travel to Mizoram and Tripura - and it seemed that most of these states' good were being transported on the night of the 16th of November. 

We finally shook off the trucks when the road forked off to Shillong and drove through the silent streets to our accommodation at the Presbyterian Church of India guesthouse that our dear friend Pyn Shullai and organised for us.  The first place we came to was the New Hope centre - and the puzzled person asked us who we had come to meet.  We soon found out that it was a rehabilitation home for injecting drug users - and while glad that this fine institution was open for folks who need help in conquering addictions, we needed to find our place – thankfully that was quickly done as the real guesthouse was just around the corner.

Our phones did not work in Manipur since they use the CDMA technology, which apparently is not being used in the North East. We thus had to patch things together using borrowed phones.  Dr. Lalzakung was most generous with one of his phones.  Coming to Gauhati, I was sure we would be ‘on line’ again.  Sadly we were not.  On our way up the hill we used Peter/s phone.  Our taxi driver / church elder also became our communications provider.

Thanks to a call on Peter’s phone, we were visited within a few minutes of our arrival in Shillong by Isaac Hmar and Nelson, a friend of his from Tripura.  Isaac is active with the Nepali churches in Shillong and was trained by us in Thane along with his colleague Rajiv.  Among other things, they look after children orphaned and affected by HIV, and each year run a whole month of programmes through which they get people involved in caring for people with HIV.  It was grand to see Isaac and learn that he is now the father of 2 little ones.  Since his was doing an all-day programme the next day, the only day of our bandh-shortened stay in Shillong, he made sure he met us late at night.

The next morning we woke up North East style at 5.30 AM and were determined to get as much out of Shillong as we could in the 24 hours we were there.   The Eichers were out of doors by 6 AM and within 10 minutes found ourselves walking up a beautiful forested path.  Shillong does that to you.  On one hand, the houses are clustered up and down the hills that the city charmingly sprawls over.  On the other hand there seem to be forest and forested area in the city.  And park after park.   Quite the contrast to the grunge and grime that the behemoth of Mumbai is.

The Sun was rising, sending golden rays through the woods.  We stopped frequently as we climbed the hill - and finally found our path end at a neat barbed wire fence.  On the other side an immaculate road and more trees.  Were we crossing into a military or government area?  We decided to wander up the road and see.  Turns out that the road is just a normal road, taking us to another compact neighbourhood and a cemetery on top of the hill.  All along we had seen the pink bursts of cherry blossoms.  Now the church bells started to peal as we walked back down towards our rooms.

We were back to our rooms - but no breakfast.  So I walked out in search of something.  The buildings around us seemed many government offices.  All closed on a Sunday morning.  There did not seem to be the normal tea-shops that I would expect in a city.  Everything cool and quiet - and shut.  Finally, after some leg work in the almost empty streets I found a street vendour.  She had tea and some chappatis and chole as well.  'Red tea' (without milk) as they drink it in Shillong.  She agreed to give me a metal jug full of tea and I hoofed it back with my prizes.

We were now well and trully in Shillong - but needed to meet as many more people in the 24 hours we had.  Our friendly caretaker let us use his mobile phone and we started calling.  In a few minutes our dear friend Pyn Shullai appeared.  Pyn is from Shillong and worked with us at JSK in 2007 for 7 months as an intern during his theological studies.  Though his church was celebrating its 50th anniversary that day, he took time out and drove over to meet us.   Then our friend Arbind Singh showed up, having walked down from the Airforce base he is stationed at on Shillong Peak.  After Pyn left we were blessed with with a visit by Bafin's family who drove all the way for Jowai - 60 kms away to meet us.

Bafin is a dentist who lived with Sheba in the same house when they were both posted at the Champa Christian Hospital in Chhatisgarh in 1999.  Later that year I swooped in and took Sheba as my bride.  Bafin was blessed with a wonderful husband Spyser and three years ago they were blessed with their lovely daughter Shekinah.

The family took us and Arvind out to a lovely restaurant in the middle of the city.  After stuffing ourselves with food and conversation, we continued talking while taking in a Sunday afternoon in Shillong on the Ward's Lake.

To have such a beautiful park in the middle of such a large city, to be able to paddle (make that pedal) your boat in the midst of flowering cherry trees and pines was something like a dream for us.  And all along to have the joy of catching up after 15 years of what God has done in our different lives and families.

Needless to say, a lot has happened.  Bafin, for one, came within a hair's breath of death and actually had a vivid out-of-body experience where she watched the team of surgeons desperately working on her body in the operating theatre.  But God had other plans for her - and now she and her husband Spyser live each day with a purpose - pouring themselves into the lives of others.

After a reluctant fare-well to Bafin and her family, we drove up to the top of Shillong - the famed Shillong Peak where we saw the whole of Shillong sprawled out across the hills as the last pinks of sun-light tickled the clouds and the city below started to wink alight.

This is also the place where our dear friends Arbind and Putul and their son Rishav stay.  Arbind serves in the airforce and over the years we have become super close to this family as they were first posted in Thane and then in another part of Mumbai.  As we worshipped together, we also grew together - and as soon as we started to think of going to the North East - a visit to Arvind and Putul was a must.  Hence even a 24 hour visit to Shillong was worth it.

Arvind is orginally from Ara in Bihar and made a decision to follow Christ while stationed in Gujarat some years ago.  It has been a joy for both of our families to grow together over the years we were in Thane / Mumbai - and what a delight to meet up again.  

And also to meet Arvind and Putul's new family - the small house-fellowship that meets Sunday evenings in their home for worship.  How lovely to worship with Garo speakers and Malayali and Tamilians who meet with Arvind's family each week.  With Hindi as our link language, we joined voices in song and prayer as the cold wind blew in the dark night outside.

Time was so very short - but we milked every minute of it!  Enoch was in gales of laugther as he and his dear friend Rishav joked and played with Asha.   Arvind and I had our heart-to-heart talks as Sheba did with Putul.  Then there was the lovingly prepared meal:

We were treated with sister Putul's famous Litti - a particularly Bihari dish which I once complemented her for and which is now made religiously for me almost every time as a special treat!  It was our last supper on our trip - and we tucked in as we had been doing all along this special time - with our waistlines being a major souvenir of this North East sojourn!

And then as the early morning hours came close, we had to wind down our conversations and catch a few winks before our dear friend Peter the taxi man came to pick us up at 5 AM the next morning.

Putul and Sheba bundled up for the cold!

Then and Now

A long time ago in the garden, two young people got married.

It was Lamka town, Churachandpur on the 18th of May 1996.   Goumang was the dashing young bridegroom, and his beautiful wife was dressed with a bridal white top and her Paite wrap-around below.

The wedding was in their home church in New Lamka at 7.30 AM - in keeping with the tribal tradition - with a tea party afterward for the whole church and then a later feast for the family members at home.

I was there - as it was shortly after I had joined the SHALOM project for my 7 month stint.  My first 'real job' of any significance!  Goumang was the main administrator of SHALOM in those days - and carried on his work doing amazing service at the ORCHID project over the past decade.

Last week we had the joy of meeting up again after 17 years.

We stopped in at Goumang's home in Gauhati, Asom on the way back to the airport.  We met him driving a nano car - just dropping his beautiful daughter at the school bus pickup point!

Wow!  What a difference from 17 years ago.  Then we were three - now we are many!  Goumang has two daughters - one had left for school - the other Ching was with us - he is also looking after his brother's son and has one of Ching's cousins staying with them too.  I am no more the batchelor I was in those days - having been happily married just before the Millenium to my beloved Sheba (15.12.99) and we have our amazing Asha and Enoch.  Be fruitful and multiply!

We were royally treated by the Goumang family and it was such a blessing to fellowship for a short time with them before our beloved Taxi-man Peter gently nudged us to get in his car and drive off to the Gauhati airport for our Kolkota flight.

How precious it is to meet old friends again.

As the old hymn says:

Blest be the tie that binds
Our hearts in Christian love;
The fellowship of kindred minds
Is like to that above.

Before our Father’s throne
We pour our ardent prayers;
Our fears, our hopes, our aims are one
Our comforts and our cares.

We share each other’s woes,
Our mutual burdens bear;
And often for each other flows
The sympathizing tear.

When we asunder part,
It gives us inward pain;
But we shall still be joined in heart,
And hope to meet again.

This glorious hope revives
Our courage by the way;
While each in expectation lives,
And longs to see the day.

From sorrow, toil and pain,
And sin, we shall be free,
And perfect love and friendship reign
Through all eternity.

Tuesday, 26 November 2013

One life at a time

We got an amazing SMS this morning:  Keep me in ur prayers as I have to testify today against 7 sex traffickers in the Sewri Court today.

The man who sent it is a pastor and dear friend of ours - we won't publish his name - because of his own deep modesty.  He is quite fearless as a person and has been an inspiration to us as he and his church live out a love of Jesus to the core.

One of the many things that this man does is to work with the International Justice Mission in their work of liberating under-age trafficked girls and going after the perpetrators in the sex-trade.  Its gritty work, including going on raids and standing witness to see that those who sell humans are actually prosecuted.   IJM (and other groups like them such as Justice and Care, Freedom Firm etc) are seeing a small trickle of legal victories take place.  These steps means it is just a bit harder for men and women to continue what most of us have given up on: the widespread sexual exploitation that continues to flourish in our midst.

Would you pray for our brave pastor as he testifies this morning?  For his church as they continue to press forward in faith and love.  And for the many girls who need to move into new lives?  There are no easy band-aid solutions.  But we know that change can be brought forward one life at a time.

Monday, 25 November 2013


There are a lot of things about our country that make us weep.

The terrible way women are treated has deep roots in our society.  The horrible gang-rape of a young woman in Delhi at the end of last year brought some stirrings about what has been going on for decades...

But hope is at hand.

Enter:  Bindi-man!

This weekend the Art for Change foundation and India for Integrity did  a collaborative event at Jantar Mantar - the open space in New Delhi for civil society protest.   It was called 'A Public Celebration of Personal Change' and was one of the end-points of the international artist residency that the Art for Change folks ran.

Bindi-man?  He is Sikan Kumar Panda, a performance artist who festooned himself with bindis and walked around challenging people to take a bindi off him, stick it on a postcard, address it to themselves and write a pledge undertaking to treat women with dignity and respect.

The postcards will be sent today and tomorrow (and depending on our wonderful postal service) will arrive later to remind the participants of their pledge (and hopefully the postman will read it too!).

A small step, but one that can change our nation, one person at a time.

This morning the event was written up in the Wall Street Journal India Realtime blog.  Do take a dekko by clicking: here.  

Hooray for Stefan and all the merry men and women who are doing things that really matter!

Friday, 15 November 2013

Guns and Roses

The beautiful land of Manipur has a long shadow across it.  Its something that's not easy to talk about, but like the proverbial elephant in the room - its clearly there.

The hidden dimension is the presence of guns.  And the people who wield them.

We see the security forces.  Patrols.  Heavily armed Quick Response Teams.   Soldiers with impassive faces on top of fast-moving jeeps, manning machine guns that can be swivelled around.   Barriers outside armed forces encampments with slogans like 'Friends of the Hill People" on them.

And we don't see the others, but their seeming absence is just as real.  We are talking with two senior doctors and they hear a sound.  I thought it was a door slamming in the next room.  They ask each other: "is that a bomb?" "No, I think it is a cracker left over from someone's diwali."

We walking by a village and saw men making gun powder.  Our host took me over to look.   He and I talked about the local practices of hunting as we walked away from the group of 3 men grinding up the black powder.  When I got back to Churachandpur and mentioned it to a friend, he had a different take.  He thought it more likely that the powder is being made for militants who move about fairly freely in some of the hill villages.

Silence speaks as well.

The totally deserted streets of Churachandpur, every single night, speak volumes about what is going on.

In Thane, if I want to get a packet of milk at 10.30 PM, I go downstairs and walk across the street.  There is a blaze of light, I am surrounded by the tempting aromas of 'pav-bhaaji' that the local vendours are out selling to families.  Folks are out till almost 12 AM, chowing-down on dosas or 'chinese' and finishing it off with kulfi bought from the street vendours.  There is light, sound, smell.  We live in the steady low grumble of a city awake - even at 3 or 4 am.

Here in Churachandpur every single shop is boarded up by 7 PM.  The sun has set at 4.30 and the electricity is only on for 4 hours a day so you are basically in darkness.  The odd person on the street may be walking back from a church meeting, or may be a member of a security force... there seems to be precious few others out at night.  The nights are dark and utterly silent.  Its only at 4 AM that the thick blanket of silence is broken - by the sporadic call of the rooster announcing that the sun is about to rise.

It wasn't my intention to query into the security situation here in Manipur - but you can't avoid talking about it.  It leaks into our conversations frequently.  "We have less problems with the UG than we had before" said one of the senior men I talked to, referring to the 'Under Grounds" - members of the bewildering number of armed outfits that operate in the valley and the hills of Manipur.  "The government is giving a monthly payment of Rs. 3000 per cadre to the organisations, so they are happy and allow the government to function."  Cold comfort thinking of my tax money going to pay off sundry folks with guns.  Cold comfort to think of our money going into supporting the various paramilitary forces.  Cold comfort to think of the dusty pot-holed roads where the 'public works department' has gotten the name 'patch-up works department.'  The contracts are won and the money pocketed by the powers to be - and the game continues.

I had started writing this post 2 days ago in general way.

But this morning the reality of it really sunk in.   We should be saying good-bye to our local hosts about now and getting into a vehicle to drive to Imphal.  But we are not.  Why?  Because day before yesterday a prominent Meitei politician was murdered in broad daylight near the Imphal Airport.   His party has declared a 24 hour bandh - no vehicle is supposed to ply the streets.  And that means that this morning - after having packed up to leave - we were told that the bandh is total.

Since we have pass through areas controlled by this party, and since the current intelligence reports talk of at least one vehicle already set on fire by the 'bandh-wallahs' it means that we are still in the cool sunshine of Churachandpur, instead of heading for Imphal airport.  We have postponed our flight to Guwahati and have just managed to book tickets for tomorrow.  The projected extra cost will be at least Rs. 13,000/-.  I don't think that the particular political party that has called the bandh is going to refund it to us...

As outsiders we are furious to have half of our precious time in Shillong cut by our dear protesting friends.   This is really the chance of a lifetime for our family, and we have invested heavily in this trip - to give Asha and Enoch a chance to see the beauty of this place and Shillong - and meet some of the wonderful friends that we have made over the years.  But what they are also getting is an education in the hard-knocks life of what local people face here day in and day out.  

Besides today's bandh declaration, the paper from Imphal has another story, about another political / social outfit that is threatening an indefinite strike in the hill areas unless their demands are met. And inside the papers are more demands and memorandums and condemnations by variety of parties and fronts.

Is it any surprise that young people from this area are leaving in droves?  That there is virtually no future for anyone who wants to invest and build anything up here?

My respect for folks who continue to live here in Manipur continues to go up.  To remain in the midst of constant uncertainty, to carry on despite the shadow of various guns and outfits above and underground, official and unofficial, supported and unsupported is a feat in itself.

The roses?  Well, it must be our hardy friends who live here.  Humanly speaking, there just seems to be so little hope.  But in this hard soil our dear friends continue to bloom.

Sheba commented to our host - Dr. Lalzakung Tusing - as we drank tea this morning: "you are always smiling - even when "  He responded: "we have to, if we are upset and worried about what is going on around us, it won't help us."

We leave tomorrow (we hope) and take with us another glimpse of the pain that our friends go through on a daily basis.  Our prayers are all the more urgent that the swords will be beaten into ploughshares - and that the Prince of Peace will return to take His rightful place in this beautiful and broken land.

Wednesday, 13 November 2013


There is a village on the outskirts of Churachandpur called Kholmun.

Turn right, off the main highway leading into town, about 3 kms before you reach the large arch that was erected in 2010 to celebrate 100 years of the Gospel reaching South Manipur.

Take the neat tarred road up past the football ground with the colourful flags marking a tournament in progress (being a Sunday, the field is empty as it is the Sabbath).  Pass by house after house.  Some brick and cement.  Others bamboo and wood and mud.  But all so neat and clean.  Nestled in greenery as the sun paints the world golden.  Gaze at the tall clumps of bamboo and the meticulously trimmed hedges that serve to delineate neighbour from neighbour.

Now we are now close to our destination.

Its a world away from our work in Thane, but we have a very specific purpose to find a very specific house in this village.

Our dear coworker Lingbhoy Haokip (whom we call "Annie") is from this village, nestled in the green foothills of the hills surrounding Churachandpur.  And we are here on a Sunday afternoon to visit her family - and speak at her church.

We finally pull into at the entrance of her home - and are warmly greeted by Annie's parents and her siblings - and ushered into the front room of her ancestral home.   Introductions are made:  we meet Annie's 3 brothers and 3 sisters - and the spouses and kids of those who are married already.

We meet Annie's parents - two elderly jewels.  Her father who has been recovering from a stroke does not speak much, but has eyes that sparkle with love and wisdom.  Her mother is an embodiment of simple grace.  What an honour to meet this elderly couple.

Mang Haokip, Annie's unmarried older brother who is a minister with the Evangelical Churches Association, is a very close from of our beloved Paokholun whom we call "Lun."  Lun - who worked with us at Jeevan Sahara for 7 months as an intern when he was studying at Union Biblical Seminary is also serving with the ECA now.  He came to pick us up in the jeep to bring us here - and seems very much part of the family.

Mang and Lun have gone on extensive tours to far-flung villages - well of the beaten track for most ministers today - meeting village churches and encouraging them to grow in the Lord.

Mang stands up and welcomes us all.  Sheba is presented with a beautiful white shawl, and I am given an exquisite red shoulder bag, both hand-woven and decorated with the tribal designs of the Haokip clan.

Annie's mother then welcomes us speaking in her mother tongue.  Mang translates for us.  We are welcomed as brothers and sisters in Christ - as well as being Annie's parents since she is serving with us in Thane.  Annie's mother radiates dignity and love.  You can see that this woman and her dear husband have lived life well.

After we offer some words in reply, and are prayed for by Annie's mother, we are requested to come and partake of the meal that has been prepared for us.  We move to the adjacent room - the wood-floored kitchen.

The food is traditional Kuki cooking - rice and various dishes of boiled vegetables, a special fermented bean chutney, as well as a chicken and rice porridge, and a slightly more 'Indian' chicken dish that Mang has made for us.

All of it 100% organic since they largely come from the family farm.  Fresh milk from their cows was poured out for us as well.  Mang and Lun eat with us while the others serve.  My father's phrase that he uses so many times is apt for this meal: "What a feast!!"

We finish our meal at 4.30 PM.  The honoured guests being fed, the rest of the family tucks in before the church service starts.

By now the sun is setting.  Its time for the Sunday evening church service.

After food we walk through the greenery of the village over to the local ECA church.   On a hike the next day with Mang we find out that their grandfather had been killed by the Japanese who had accused him of being a collaborator with the British during their occupation of this area during WWII.  Mang and Annie's father had come to faith in Christ as a teenager, and along with 5 other young men had established this village church.  Today he is among the last men still alive from the founding generation.

When we enter the church, we are ushered into the very front, and I am brought up on stage and seated up behind a high pulpit.  From this lofty height, as the designated speaker, I can watch as the church rapidly fills up.  Young people start the signing - with a guitar, synthesizer and the steady booming of a large tribal drum providing music to the voices of angels.  Efficient ushers - all wearing large badges - glide people into every available seat.  The church is full - with folks of all ages - and all singing Kuki hymns.  Though some have come with song-books, most are listening to a young woman at the microphone who rapidly speaks out a line before everyone joins in singing it.

Sheba and the kids have now been accommodated on the benches on the right of me, up on stage.

The church choir assembles and a heart-stoppingly beautiful song is sung.  Then Sheba is up, sharing how we work with the dying and help people walk through the steps that Jesus himself has gone through.  Asha and Enoch join us for a simple song and which is followed by a special song by an elderly gentleman.  

Then the Church secretary gives a detailed set of announcements - 20 minutes of instructions in the Kuki language which is liberally interspersed with the 'Christmas.'  A prayer and then - it is time for me to share.

A week ago we were in Kamshet - 30 kms up the hill outside Lonavala in Maharashtra - and I was sharing at our Church Family Camp on the theme of being ready for Jesus' return.   Looking out over the sea of beautiful faces at the ECA church in Kholmun - the same message from 2nd Peter 3.11b-12a was entirely apt.  My friends in Maharashtra straddle the economic divides of top-level executives and slum dwellers, and come from a cosmopolitan mix of emigrant South Indian communities as well as various Maharashtrian sons of the soil while here in this Manipuri village of Kholmun the whole church speaks one language and are from one specific place.  The one person missing was Annie who was servign with us in Thane.  But all of us need to be living holy and godly lives as we look forward to the day of the Lord, and speed its coming.

Afterwards we look up into the starry night.  What a blessing to be here.  God is so good.

Tuesday, 12 November 2013

Post cards from the edge of Paradise (Lamka Edition)

Lamka (literally 'Junction') is the local name for Churachandpur. We Eichers are half-way into our stay here - and continue to be dazzled by the blue sky above, the star spangled black nights (made all the more vivid by their being no electricity up to 20 hours of the day + night), and the general amazement of being in a place 'so unlike' what we normally experience in Thane.

Yesterday we decided that we would like to go on a hike.  Besides fulfilling our hunger to see the country-side, it was also appropriate since it was my dear Mother's birthday (11.11).  "Oma" has turned into a sprightly 76-year old who loves to go on hikes - and so she was 'with us in spirit' as we left Leinsangvung villa and walked into the cool sunshine of a November morning in Lamka.

Our guide for the day was Mang Haokip - our dear JSK co-worker Annie's brother - who along with our previous UBS intern Lun Haokip has gone on extensive tours of the hill villages for his church.  Clearly the man of the hour to take us up the hill!

And take us he did!

Enoch (seen here with a local vegetable vending lady who had come to the home on our first day here) was asking me as we walked out of town:  "Daddy, there are a lot of AIDS symbols here."


That there are.

I came to Lamka in 1995 to do my MPH research project on 'Injecting Drug Use and HIV Risks' - and the past 2 decades have had many outreaches to people living with HIV - and to young people at risk of the disease.  But the disease is still here.   We had the blessings of meeting our old friends Drs. Nandumani and Ango Chongtham who have just come to Lamka a fortnight ago.  Dr. Nandu is a surgeon posted at the govt. hospital and he has already been operating on people living with HIV - including a woman whose leg almost had to be amputated because of the terrible abscess that she had from injecting SpasmoProxyvon into her femoral vein - and the rupture of the artery when the initial surgery was done to drain her infection.  The woman is still recovering at the hospital, but Dr. Nandu has been able to provide her a lifeline.

What has changed is that the government now gives free ART treatment for people with HIV.  We hope to visit the ART centre on Thursday - if time and tide permit - but as we walked past the civil hospital we could not help see a sign that certainly was not there when I was working with SHALOM in Lamka in the mid 90s:

Within a short time we were leaving the 'town' behind and wending our way gradually up slope.  We passed 'Headquarters Veng' where the district administration and various sundry govt. offices are.  Sadly many lovely buildings are there - with signs on them like 'Weaving Centre' etc. - all nicely bolted with padlocks on the outside and precious little on the inside.  My tax-payer money makes its way (at least a little bit of it) over to Manipur - where it is distributed to government employees who are on the pay roll - but often do precious little other than collect their salaries (and often have to bribe their superiors to get that too).  Mang said that when he preaches about this in church, the folks don't really appreciate his comments.

There are still new houses being built.  Using wood for a framework - and bamboo woven walls with mud plaster and a tin roof means that homes can still be built largely from local materials.  We walked past home after home - many of them humble - but all neat and tidy.  With the blue sky above I could not help and wonder at the contrast with the utter grime that surrounds us in our current abode in Thane.  Why would anyone want to trade this for the distopia that most of our cities are?

A quick snap taken while driving by Moulvaiphei village on Sunday may give a clue.  The shot above has women returning from washing clothes in the local stream.  The bridge over this is draped with clothes being dried by others.  Look closely, and you will see that one of the young women is using a smart phone.  The fruits of education and aspiration mean that staying in the village is hardly an option for most young people.  The cities and jobs and hopes of moving up beckon.

As expected we passed churches of all stripes.  Some small.  Some largish.  A few under construction.  Glancing into on yard I saw a cross leaning on home.  What kind of church would that be?  Some small lettering says "Praise the Lord - Amen."  I couldn't help of thinking of what Jesus said "take up your cross daily and follow me."

As we passed one village, we heard a bell.  "Someone has just died" Mang told us.  

Sure enough, the members of the local youth association were already at work.  A parachute canopy was being erected in the fore-yard.  The furniture of the house cleared and benches brought from the local church.  Soon a 'lengkhom' will start - where hymns are sung and short messages are given which will go into the night and till the burial takes place.  Nothing happens alone here.  I remembered participating in some of the lengkhoms during my time in 1996.  The hymns were written in roman script so I could sing along with the tunes - telling of God and a place where there is no sorrow - while the steady beat of the drum goes through the night.  These were also the first times that I talked from God's word to help console those who are going through the pain of losing a family member to death.

I had enthusiastically promoted the Eicher hike.  But we have 4 members in the family.  This was by far the longest walk Sheba has done since her surgery.  We stopped frequently.  Here at a 'Tea Hotel' where the daughter of the proprietor looked out shyly at us strangers.

Gradually we began the spaces between the villages began to increase.  Our road became more winding and stopped being tarred.  The view started to open up and we could see down the hill and over the town.

We could see that the hillsides were cultivated using 'jhum' cultivation - where portions of scrub forest are cut and burned and then planted for a few seasons, before moving on to the next portion.

At one bend in the road, we were resting in a shady bit, looking over the scene below us under the amazingly blue sky, when something approached that looked hallucinatory.  For almost an hour, we had not been passed by a single vehicle - in either direction.  But as we sat, a man came around the bend of the hill, pushing his bicycle.

There, smack bang in the middle of no-where, emerges a Bihari candy-floss man!

Dear Mr. Sharma is from Samastipur district of Bihar, and peddles his trade, selling flourescent pink candy-floss which he makes at his room in Churachandpur.  
"What to do", he says "If I do not go out, we will not have food to eat!"   And so he pushed on, with his Barbie pink confections like so many balloons around him.

When we pressed on we walked through pine forests and into the Gemol village boundary.

I was struck by the brilliant yellow flowers that burst out in hosannahs along the way.   Mang told us that some of the early converts called this the Christmas flower - because when it started blooming they knew that Christmas was around the corner.

There is nothing like a fresh flower to adorn those who are precious to us!

And so we finally made it to the top - Gelmoul mountain - the site of the Jacob Prayer Mount that the ECA churches run.   Some years ago, the local chief of Gelmoul village gave the land to be used as a place for prayer and calling on God.  A large chapel is on top - surrounded by a number of small prayer cabins.  We were met by a lady counsellor who spends time with people who come for prayer.  Having come there we also spent some time in one of the little prayer cabins and thanked God for His many mercies to us.

A hearty picnic lunch and we were ready to go back in the late afternoon sun.

Before you get to Gelmoul you see this sight - the "M-moul."  A mountain with a twin peak which can be seen from almost all parts of the valley - and reminds local people of the letter 'M' - hence the name.

A day well spent!  Many vivid memories in our minds.  More postcards from the edge of paradise.