Thursday, 11 July 2019

Amma speaks

Amma left us suddenly and unexpectedly.   But her life was lived large. 

We miss her much.  Recently when we were down in Chennai at Peter and Yashmeet’s place, dear Amma came to mind again and again.  Meeting Appa always brings Amma to mind.  This home was the place where Amma went sleep one night, and woke up the next morning with the Lord.  And in this home Amma still speaks even though she has left us for paradise.

It is possible to speak even after you have died.  After we decided to shift Dad to palliation for his pancreatic cancer, he recorded a short message to be played at his upcoming funeral – both in Hindi and in English.  We showed the Hindi version at Dad’s funeral on August 15th 3 years ago.  It was quite powerful to hear Dad share what he always did – a message of hope and joy.

One of the ways Amma speaks to us today is through her cross-stitch pictures.

Amma loved to do things with her hands. Besides her amazing cooking, cross-stitching and knitting were ways that she expressed her love.

In Peter and Yashmeet’s home we found 4 of her cross-stitch pictures on display.   Each is enriched with some key words from God’s revealed word as recorded in the Bible.

Join us as we take a small contemplative walk through the house, stopping at the different pictures which Amma lovingly made and which speak to us today.  Do spend some time meditating on what the Lord is revealing to us His dearly loved children.

Our first picture is a cross-stitch is based on a picture that Wendy Binks gave to Asha at Asha’s dedication in Jharkhand, many years ago.  

Amma reimagined this picture using local threads, and today the 5 birds and 5 flowers form a wonderful wreath around the central message:

Whatever you do
In word or deed
Do all in the name of the Lord Jesus      (Col 3.17)

Our lives are short.  Eternity is forever.  We lived on a visited planet. 

We have multiple choices about how we spend our time.  How we spend our day to day activities.  
Things that over time can become mundane and repetitive . 

As well as the ‘big events’ that shine out.   A career choice.  A personal faith decision.  A betrothal for a life together. 

What do we do?  And how do we do these things?

The verse Amma chose asks us to keep something very clearly in focus.  Eternity matters and He who holds eternity in His hand matters most.

The ex-cricketer and fool-for-God CT Studd, speaking in a different generation had this to say:
Only one life, T’will soon be past
Only what’s done for Jesus will last

May the fragrance of Jesus pervade everything we do.  May all our actions vibrate with His divine presence, power and love.  May we be intentional and as loving children tremble with joy in His presence, acknowledging Him in all the steps – big and small – that we take on this pilgrim life of ours…


Our next picture from Amma’s loving hands looks out from a wall in the living room.

The message is straight forward.  

A command and a promise.

Call to Jesus.  Talk.  Speak out.  Don’t mumble and procrastinate.  Our Lord yearns to hear from us His beloved children.

As a father, I want so much for Enoch to give me a call.  We cannot call him at his boarding school, but he can use one of the phones in the dorm and call us.  The problem is that his life is so full.  We know that those small slivers of time before a meal, after a football practice are hard to translate into a call to Mum and Dad.

And then there is the super frustration of Enoch calling us – only for him to hear ‘this number is not available at the moment’ – ‘this number is outside the calling range, please try later.’  And then even greater frustration to have him ‘get through’ to us – and for us not to be able to hear him due to poor reception. 

But when we do ‘get through’ – what a sweet delight to hear his voice.

How much more our heavenly Father yearns to hear us.  Delights to listen to His beloved children.
Call to me.  Not to another.  I would be so sad if Enoch spent his precious conversations talking to someone else.   Let’s speak directly to Jesus.  Let’s not waste any time in haphazard shots-in-the-dark when He has appeared to us and directly tells us “ask, seek, find…”  “Come to me, all you who are weak and heavy-laden, I will give you rest.”

And then there is the wonderful promise.

I will answer.

I and not another.  Not some chat-bot powered by AI.  Not some underling out-sourced for the task.  But YHWH Himself.  The great I AM.  The everlasting Father.

How can the God of Gods speak to us?  How can we hear His voice?  How can the effable partake of the ineffable?

And that too, the Lord says that He hears the weak and broken hearted.  We don’t need to perform to gain an audience with Him.  He does not count our merits when He decides to answer our call.

Do we actually believe this?  Are our lives revelation-driven?  Or are we more-or-less practical atheists (or perhaps ‘clock-work-universalists’) running our lives on our own, acting as if there is no one who is above us – or as if God has set everything up and gone away on a looooong vacation?

I will answer.  That’s what He says.  It’s for us to live this truth out in the hustle and bustle of our days.

Thank you Amma for reminding us of this truth.


The third picture is currently hanging in Appa’s room.  It is one of a series of pictures Amma made for each of her grand-children.   We have one with a different verse for Asha and Enoch which has hung in our home reminding us of Amma’s love.  

The Lord is good to all, and his tender mercies are over all his works.  Ps. 145.9

How much we need to be reminded of this truth every day.

We seem awash in a sea of corruption and shamelessness.  Politicians who claim to be cleaning out the Aegean stables do so by blatantly purchasing others.  The cruelty of humanity makes its way into our newspapers with almost metronomical regularity.  I don’t even want to write the words here…

Can it be true in this broken world, that the Lord is really good to all, and that His tender mercies are over all His works?

Our sin-stained eyes, our bruised souls, our inflamed relationships can give us what literally is a jaundiced look at the world.   There is real evil, but it is not from the Lord – who is only good.  We must keep reminding ourselves of this truth.  And the very horror we feel at the rot around us points to something beyond the decay that can assail us on all sides.

The word that the Word uses is “mercy.”  That’s an interesting choice. 

Mercy is given when punishment is deserved, but when an exception, a pardon is given in its place.  

It’s a hard word to use when real abuse has taken place, when the perpetrator is still on the loose.  
But God’s mercy is a different dimension.  Not only does He give mercy, he also takes the punishment.  His mercy is not callous and random – it has been paid for in full – by the mercy-Giver Himself.

And so we need to be reminded that His tender mercies are indeed over all His works.

Starting with me.  Starting today.


And so we come finally to the last message of Amma for us.

This cross-stitch is framed and hangs in Appa’s room, above his bed.  I have in my mind’s eye the image of Appa taking his afternoon nap on a hot Chennai day, with this picture serenely in the back-ground.

 A rich and wonderful promise for all of us:

And even to your old age, I am He, and even to grey hairs will I carry you,
I have made, and I will bear, even I will carry, and will deliver you.     (Isaiah 46.3)

None of us are growing younger.

Appa has completed 81 years on this planet.  Oma turns 82 in November.  Sheba and I have racked up a century of years between us this year.

God, our Maker, and our Sustainer, has words of comfort for us as the years progress. 

First of all we have a hope of growing old.  At Indian independence, the average life-expectancy at birth was only 47 years.  Most people died well before they became 50 (many of course in infancy and childhood).  But today that has grown to about 68 years.  Today our population is greying and many are spending years alone and neglected.

As we look at the next two decades, we realise that we will be reaching the age that Amma died at. 

Sobering stuff.

But this is what the Lord says to us.  He has made us.  He will carry us.  Sheba and I have a number of grey hairs.  And on my head the hereditary baldness of my mother’s Fischer forebears is readily seen.  But the promise is the He will carry us. We think of the shepherd carrying the new born lamb.  But we also have the image of the shepherd carrying the old and weak sheep.

He who made us, who fashioned us so miraculously (take alook at this talk).  He will sustain us.  He will hold us together physically when things seem to be falling apart.  Hold us to each other as we grow old in tandem.  Hold us to Himself when we feel lonely and afraid.  Hold our hands, especially on that day if and when our mind begins to play tricks.  A possible and plausible day when we are not fully in control of our selves.  When our understanding becomes muddled and confused as we have seen in so many of our dear ones. 

He will hold us.  He will carry us.  He will deliver us.

What a set of promises.  What a Lord.  The Ancient of days whose mercies are new every morning.  Great is His faithfulness.


And so we have come to the end of our small tour of Amma’s words – which have of course been the words of her lovely Lord. 

May we humbly accept these truths.  May we rest in His goodness who has never lied and upholds us with His gentle but mighty hand.

Saturday, 6 July 2019

Pilgrim Posts: A Ray of Hope

Asha Kiran Society.  Literally a "Ray of Hope".  This amazing group of dreamers and doers has been serving the communities (largely tribal) of the Koraput district in remote southern Odisha for the past 25 years.

Sheba and I have been on the road for 5 weeks now as this is being typed in on a sultry pre-monsoonal day in Delhi.  Time and tide wait for no one - and our time at Asha Kiran is already 2 weeks in the past.  So up and at it to write down some of bright dazzle of what we saw and heard during our 9 days at Asha Kiran. 

So far our pilgrim journey had been more or less with the masses.  We did not go unreserved, but did experience the joys of travelling outside of our air-conditioned bubble.  This bit, however, had us sky-high.

Thanks to some very generous folks who wanted us to stay with them maximum time, we flew from Patna down to Vishakhpatnam.   A few hours later young Enoch joined us at the Vizag airport, having travelled 'on his own' from Mussoorie via Delhi to meet us.  Though there were minders to drop him off at Dehra Dun railway station, pick him up at the New Delhi destination and finally drop him at the New Delhi airport, it was (for us parents at least) another step forward in the saga of junior Eicher's wing-spreadings.

A wonderful evening with our dear friends Nagesh and Sumangali and their lovely daughter Ruth Netanya and so we were on the morning passenger train for scenic Arakku.

The train pulls out of Vizag station at just before 7 AM and makes its unhurried way up the magnificent Eastern Ghats.  Did I say up?  Well, a lot of it is 'through' - there are tunnels galore and in each one of them we heard the delighted shrieks of some of our fellow passengers.

When we finally reached Arakku, we had been sated with beautiful views and were glad to see Victor and Sarah and their lovely daughter Joanna meet us at the station - along with our own lovely Asha who had gone there 2 weeks earlier along with Joanna.

After the hot cauldrons of Kachhwa and Madhepura - what a joy to be welcomed by the cool of Arakku - a kind of hill station for Andhra Pradesh.  I have never been in a cool part of Andhra - so here was something new.

The lovely 1 hour drive from Arakku over the border into Odisha'a Koraput district was sweetened by having so many loved ones in one vehicle!

The hills are rolling, with most at least 1000 m above sea-level.  I had some flashbacks to my visit to the Rukungeri dist. of Uganda in 1997 when Stefan was working at Kisiizi Christian Hospital.  Rolling green hills, small villages, red earth.  The only thing missing was large banana plantations.

There is something very special about family.  We spend so much time apart, and so when we do come together we have both the sublime ... and the challenges of meeting up with high expectations to have 'quality time.'  I think we parked our expectations along with the vehicle which had brought us - and were rewarded with a blessed time of just being together as family.

We are acutely aware that many changes are afoot.  Our own pilgrim journey continues, as Sheba and I seek the face of our Lord about where next.  And then we have Asha about to spread her wings and fly off to the US to start college at Taylor this fall.  Joanna is in her final year at Woodstock.  Enoch in 11th standard at Wynberg.  In 2 years this picture will probably only be of the 4 parents!

Victor and Sarah have completed a year based out of Asha Kiran.  They have continued to live out their lives of love, and though we associate them very much with Delhi, it is quite natural for them to be at Lamtaput since they have served on the Asha Kiran Society board for years.

There is something wonderful about the community life at Asha Kiran.  We just sampled a bit of it, meeting a few of the dear ones, while mainly camping out in Victor and Sarah and Joanna's lovely little flat.

A staff family who live in a near-by village celebrated their twin sons' birthday with us.  A chocolate cake was rustled up for Jimmy and Johnny's birthday.  Their father helps with the community services team - helping local farmers start eco-friendly land use (more on that later) and their mother helps in house-keeping.  Both boys and their older sister attend English-medium schools which the Asha Kiran Society have been instrumental in setting up and running.  The family lives in a village 1 km away from the hospital and are just radiant.

Victor is a walking miracle.  Literally.  Two years ago he discovered that one of his heart vessels was 90% obstructed and the other completely.  He has a family history of heart problems with his elder brother having had surgery and his father dying at a tragically young age.  But as the top heart specialists tested Victor they found something amazing.  His main heart vessels are almost completely obstructed, but his heart is still functioning!  The secondary vessels outside the heart have grown larger and have compensated for the lack of functioning of the primary ones.  Its a natural 'by-pass' surgery that gradually took place without Victor ever noticing.  How good our God is!

Victor doesn't take any of this lightly.  He is deeply grateful for the grace of Jesus his maker and sustainer (as are we all) and is very careful with his diet (ragi dosas anyone?) and exercise.  Here is one of the joys we had.  Every morning (when the rain isn't pouring of course) Victor and Sarah have a walk from 5.15 to 6 AM.

And what beautiful countryside to walk in.

The wonderful old hymn comes to mind:

When morning gilds the skies
my soul awakening cries
may Jesus Christ be praised
alike in work and prayer
to Jesus I repair
may Jesus Christ be praised.

How much our souls yearn for beauty.  How little time we give to exercise and soul / body care.  Walking, especially walking in a gorgeous place, is so therapeutic.  So right.  So needed.

And so neglected by yours truly whose waist has reached new horizons.  Something has to be done about this! The lovely morning walks we had with Victor and Sarah are an inspiration for us.

It's not often that you meet a farmer out in the fields, who was part of a prayer gathering the night before.  On one of our morning walks we met one such man.  We had the privilege of sharing in a village study held in one of the members homes.  The next morning, after a good night of rain, it was time for the farmers to get out their oxen and plough.  And one of our dear friends was also hard at work, tilling the soil and getting ready to sow.


Asha Kiran Society.  A ray of hope.  Many rays of hope.  Their society symbol captures much of who they are.   The following is my take on 

The bow and arrow in the background is the largest element.  It captures the tribal ethos and clearly signals that this society is primarily here for the tribal groups living in the villages across the Koraput district.

We are told that Odisha has 63 different tribal communities.  We learned that 54 of these groups live in the former 'undivided Koraput' district (which is now 4 districts of which the current 'Koraput' is one).   There are clearly many different groups - each one with its own distinct culture and sets of practices - and their own special challenges as they negotiate what it means to be themselves within the relentless tides of change.

The cross in the middle signifies medical care, and originally comes from the One who gives healing.  

The fish in the cross reminds us that food is vital.  The old saying that teaching a man to fish is much better than just giving a person fish to eat comes to mind.  The fish symbol also reminds me personally of the early followers of the Master who drew it on walls of the catacombs. 

Sheba was deeply challenged by the original founders of Asha Kiran Hospital when they were setting up shop in the early 1990s.   She was in medical college in Cuttack, Odisha and Drs. Manoj and Manju and VP and Nirmala met with her and other medical students and shared their dreams and experiences.  It is a full circle for us to finally be visiting this amazing place.   Strangely, it was the first time for Sheba and myself to be at Asha Kiran in the flesh.  My own question was really, why has it taken us this long?

For one, the place is beautiful.  The given beauty of hill and sunrise and matching glorious sunset is one matter.  The edenic campus is another.  Add to this the lovely brick-master architecture that unites all the work and living spaces with each other and the local communities.  Wow.

But this place is not just a place to come for picnics.  The dear friends who live and work and grow here are an intentional community.  That is clear.  It is more than just a work-place.  More than a pleasant Disney-land.  It is a place where ordinary people have banded together to be out-of-the-ordinary in their commitment to each other and to their Lord.

Obviously as an outsider, first-time guest things will look rosier to me than for those who have been serving with each other for years.  But there it is.  For years.  People have worked together and are building each other up in the long term.

When the founders of Asha Kiran left their spiritual home of the Christian Fellowship Hospital in Oddanchataram, Dr. Tharien gave them a profound charge.  They had to love and serve each other and keep the fellowship going.  Dr. Tharien and his cohort had done the same in setting up CFH a generation before.  But to do this he said: "one of you must die every day."  One person at least, will have to lay down their dreams, their will, their strong passionate desire... for the sake of the whole, for the building up of the fellowship.  To live out the intentional part of being and intentional community.


And so we have the Asha Kiran Society which is providing many rays of light.

The flagship work started with appropriate medical care and has been built up into a 40 bedded hospital run by an amazing team of doctors, nurses, paramedical staff and a variety of different support staff.

It was my deep privilege to share a series of 5 morning devotions looking at what Jesus did with His hands during His earthly ministry.  And I could not help reflecting over and over again how the dear staff were in fact living this out in they own fields of ministry.

The patients stream into Asha Kiran Hospital.  Last year over 35 thousand out-patient visits took place.  The majority of these patients being the tribal and vulnerable communities that Asha Kiran was set up to serve.   More than 2 thousand were admitted for medical care into the wards.  The surgeon - Dr. Ravi and visiting surgeons at times - were kept busy with 353 major surgeries taking place - one for almost every day of the year.  Many children saw the light of day at Asha Kiran with 425 deliveries taking place...

The numbers can go on and on, but what we saw is what a mission hospital should be.  Compassionate, egalitarian care.  Given with dignity and in a way that the patients and their relatives are able to understand.  Services meeting the needs of those who otherwise fall through the cracks... no make that the gaping fissures of our health care system.

I was moved to see the quiet dignity of the patients waiting in the OPD for their turn.  And to witness the open OPD where doctors of various skill and experience levels worked as a team.  Where no one was referred to as a 'specialist' despite a number of them having received advanced training at some of the best institutions we have.  This is what medicine done in community can be.  Look and see friends, look and see!

Asha Kiran Hospital OPD waiting place - picture courtesy AKS Annual Report 2018/19

Sheba was pressed into service - since one of the doctor couples was away - and so did a series of morning OPD consultations.  What a blessing that she knows Odiya - having been born and brought up in Rourkela, and then doing her medical college in Cuttack.

She did have a few funny moments though.  One dear lady listened to her and then told Sheba: "please speak in Odiya, I don't understand the language you are speaking."  Most of the patients actually don't speak Odiya in general - instead they speak a local trade language called 'Desiya' which links the different tribal groups together.

Sheba's inputs were deeply appreciated by the medical team though.  What a blessing to be able to come to a place and immediately get to work!  The worth of a doctor is huge.  Especially one who is willing to serve in places that many don't want to go.  The team that currently is running the Asha Kiran Hospital are just gold.  Amazing people doing amazing things.


One of the roots of ill-health is poor nutrition.  This is a paradox in a place where there is plenty of land, but where many farmers plant eucalyptus trees on their land and go off for cash-for-labour migration.

The Asha Kiran Society community service unit works in various ways to address health issues before they become issues.  There is training of field partners through the Community Lay-leaders Health-care Training Course (CLHTC) which is done together with the distance learning folks from CMC Vellore.  There is also the regular interaction with community health volunteers in specific villages. And then there is the farming work.

That's right folks.  Farming work.  The Asha Kiran team is committed to helping local communities use the land in ways that help both the land and the tiller.  And one of them has been to implement the SALT (Sloping Agriculture Land Technology) approach first developed in the Philippines.

And when they say using the land, the really mean it.  Putting soil erosion and water retention structures in place.  Uprooting Eucalyptus trees which have the potential to deplete water tables.  Doing agroforestry by including helpful tree plantations and cash crops to make maximum use of the land.

Initial uptake was slow - but now the farmers who started 5 years ago are seeing the benefits of their land intensification - and the Asha Kiran Community Services Unit is partnering with the government to scale up to already 300 farmers with a target of 500 in sight.

These 'Adarsh Baghicha' (model gardens) are based on simple pattern which can be adapted to each farmers needs.  The top third of the plot is given over to agro-forestry.  Silver oaks are planted who grow straight and tall.  Once they have grown a bit, then an understory plantation of coffee bushes is introduced.  Pepper vines are planted to creep up the Silver oak - providing another cash crop.

The middle third of the plot is used for horticulture.  Mango, papaya and other fruit trees are planted. When we say tree - we mean sapling.  And in the harsh sun, the saplings need to be tended well.  The Adarsh Baghicha concept demands hard work.  It is good to see a number of farmers taking up the challenge.

If you look closely at the base of this mango sapling, you will see that it is well fertilised with a manure / compost mix.  On each Adarsh Baghicha, the farmer is encouraged to set up composting pits which are helped by vermiculture.  The worms break down the manure and biomass so much quicker and produce soil enhancing and productivity increasing bio-fertilisers.

But if you look even more closely, you will see a clay pot near the base of the mango sapling.  This pot has a small hole in its base.  The farmer fills the pot with water, and the life-giving liquid slowly seeps out, giving just the right amount of moisture for the mango sapling's roots to rejoice.  And in addition, a companion vine is added, to utilise the space and time as the sapling grows into the fruit tree it has been planted as.

Finally, the lowest third of the land is used for cultivating multiple kinds of vegetables.  These provide healthy organic food for the farmer and his and her family, as well as a salable surplus.

The initial setting up of these multiple use 'gardens' takes lime and the returns are not immediate.  So many farmers have not started implementing it yet.  But for those who have stuck with it, the rewards are now accruing.


A major part of the Asha Kiran Society work in the area focusses on education.

Besides running the Asha Kiran Academy - an English medium school just behind the main campus which caters to students up to class 10, a major task has been to set up "Multi-Lingual Education" approaches in many of the surrounding villages.

The challenge for most tribal students is that they just don't know enough of Odiya, the state language and the main language of instruction in government schools.   So the Asha Kiran folks have been working to develop ways of teaching students in their own languages of Bonda and Gabbada or in the local trade language of Desiya - and then concurrently start teaching them Odiya.  The aim is to help them join government schools in 5th standards.

Here are some fresh figures about what the amazing network of educators that Asha Kiran has developed were able to do with God's help and grace last year:

Amazing to see what can be done.  Using local people.  Building up the capacity of teachers from villages.  One of the facilities that Asha Kiran has developed is this building below, which has been instrumental in building up a whole generation of young talent.

I met one of the youth from this village.  He is now studying and has been accepted for a Masters of Public Health at the Tata Institute for Social Sciences in Mumbai.  And that too from a village where previously no one had completed 10th standard.  I am in awe of this who went as pioneers, and those who have stayed on and faithfully been building people up.


One of the highlights of our time was spending and afternoon with one of the most vulnerable tribal groups.

We set off on the long jeep drive that took us up and up into the hills.  After some time the paved road stopped and we churned up a red-earth dirt road.  The reason it was not paved?  The local Naxalites had burned 6 vehicles of the contractor who was building the road for the government.  Needless to say no other contractor dares to build a road here.

The village at the base of this hill section is where the Asha Kiran staff had initially set up their operations.  People from this tribe would come down to this village on market days.  The Asha Kiran staff would work on making contact with them.  Till then no one had been allowed by the villagers to ever spend a night up in their village.

After much work, Dr. Alex, the pioneer of this work was given a local name by the group and allowed to come up and spend nights in their village.  Later he was able to build a small house and live among them with his wife.

Today Dr. Alex is no more.  He died suddenly of a previously undetected  heart complication, but the work that he and others started continue.  The village in question now has a small health centre and local women are serving as trained health visitors to this village and a number of other ones around them.

The view from the village is like you are at the end of the world.  Range upon range of hills all around.

Most of the hills are cultivated with shifting agriculture - the classic 'slash and burn' where a plot of land will be cleared of vegetation and burned.  Simple crops will then be sown in the ground, with the fertiliser being the previous biomass.   Needless to say,  the local men are not interested in the Adarsh Bagicha model at this time.

The local tribal elders decide who can use what plots of land.  There are levels of order even in what looks rather destructive.

Needless to say, the high incline leads to erosion.  But the local villagers are not interested in long-term cultivation and making terraces etc. like we see in hilly regions of Nepal or Garhwal.

One of the many challenges of living so far away from the mainstream.  And also one of the strengths.  If the village community can be helped to gather and make positive choices, how much of God's beautiful creation will be around of their precious descendants.

In the raw beauty of creation, there are also some very human problems and challenges.

Malaria continues to be a challenge, and the Asha Kiran staff work with the government to do rapid screening of malaria cases.  Here you can see some of the used kits.  The three slots are C for 'control', Pv for Malaria positive for Plasmodium vivax and Pf standing for Malaria positive for Plasmodium falciparum.   Infection with the latter form of the malarial parasite is by far the more dangerous.  Most malarial deaths are the result of Plasmodium falciparum infections.

The good news is that early detection and prompt treatment saves lives.  Big time!

The malarial drugs themselves are available and the government gives them to the Asha Kiran team to use - which they do.  Life after life has been saved by timely treatment with medications.

To help the village health animators, the Asha Kiran team have made simple charts which guide them about what doses to give and when.

This deep love for the people is evident to me.  But it is not always reciprocated.

The metal door to the small clinic that Asha Kiran set up in this village  as a hole in it.   An irate man accused the team of neglecting his child - and used an axe to try and break down the door to wreak havoc.  The door held and he and the others lived to see another day.  The hole is a sobering reminder of the challenges faced by the HBM Family.

One of the jewels we met was this lovely family.

Hailing from Kerala, they have been faithfully serving in this very, very remote part of the country.

I saw their children playing freely with their neighbours.  A large number of small tribal children who did not seem to think it odd that their new friends are dressed differently to them.

What amazing integration - and that too when the original architect of contact with these precious group lived his life to the fullest  - and was then taken to glory.

I was deeply moved to see the house where the pioneering doctor first stayed (below).  It is a physical reminder of what sacrifice means.  It is also a learning for us all.  What seems impossible, God can make possible.

Amazingly there are now high-school graduates from this village.  I saw a young man show me his freshly received 12th standard mark sheet.  How wonderful that this young man has been able to do this.  Another young man came back down the hill with us.  His face with just shining.  He has finished class 10 and is now going on a long trip South (US South that means).  The Asha Kiran staff are helping this young man to enroll in higher studies all the way down south.  Marvels never cease. 

Besides the health work, the Multi Lingual Education work is also happening with great gusto in this area.  There are of course so many more stories to tell.   

We just cannot do justice to the many-splendoured glory that is the Asha Kiran family and which is shown in so many different ways.  Words are not enough.  But at least they are a start.

And so we said 'adieu' to Asha Kiran Hospital.  It was a deeply moving time.  God has really blessed the senior leadership and is working out his blessings to each member of the staff.

Here is a final shot - taken on long way back to Asha Kiran hospital from the village.

Saturday, 29 June 2019

A Symphony in Brick - the wonderful architecture of Asha Kiran Hospital

Beauty is something we crave deep down.  It’s one of the defining human traits – a desire to see things lovely, a deep sense of wonder we have at the ever changing sunsets, or the gurgling tumbling waterfall.

Sadly, so many of the buildings that we live in are rather ugly.  Concrete boxes with garish colours seem to rule most cities.  And even in the village, the ugly steel rods poke up from many a ‘pukka’ house.

How refreshing, how absolutely delightful to when we find places were simple beauty rules.  One such tiny corner of this planet is the Asha Kiran Hospital in the Koraput district of Odisha.

Feast your eyes on what the average patient sees when she or he walks into the main gate.

This is no concrete monstrosity, no steel and glass ice-cube which has fallen down from Venus.

This is a village.  A hospital deliberately built to evoke the cluster of homes that the average patient (90%+ being tribals) and their care-givers will be used to in their own hamlets.

This is a hospital which has been ground-up designed to say ‘welcome home’ to those precious ones who come for help and healing. 

Just look at how the back of the hospital looks at the end of the day.

All that is missing are the fires of people cooking their food.   But wait, they are there too.  The Asha Kiran Hospital has made places where care-givers can cook and sleep, including an indoor shed for winter and monsoon times.

When the Asha Kiran Hospital was founded 25 years ago, the pioneering doctors and nurses used old motor cycles and local busses to come to a small mud hut which was their first place of clinical service. 

That life-style continues in many ways, and has been captured in the beautiful architecture of Laurie Baker who designed the original Asha Kiran Hospital clinical and staff buildings.   And the subsequent buildings have continued to be poetry in brick.

Here are some of the basic elements of which the Asha Kiran Society continues to (literally) build on.

Using bricks.  
Every building uses brick.  And that too in a rat-trap design which creates a natural insulation and uses less bricks.  The motto is to cut costs – as much as possible.  So minimal concrete is used.  The bricks are also generally not plastered – or if at all, directly painted on.  As a result the whole Asha Kiran campus is a symphony of terra cotta and white.

No painting needed because the bricks do not get wet the roofs over-hang and cut out the major monsoonal down-pours.  Most of them are ordered without the maker’s stamp so they form a pretty grid of which can be seen all over campus.   These staff quarters for example...

Using concrete minimally, to maximum effect
All the roofs are concrete.  But in contrast to our standard box sets, most of the roofs are a slanting slab of concrete to allow the rain to wash off – and stop being the heat amplifiers that most ‘pukka’ houses are.

But for me the ‘wow’ moment was looking inside.  As you look up at the ceilings you are greeted with this beautiful sight.  For example in the meeting room / prayer space in the main admin building.

You see tiles inside.  And why may that be?

Well, unless you are building a sky-scraper, most concrete slabs just don’t need that much steel, or concrete for that matter!  So what Laurie Baker taught was to skip 2 out of every 3 steel rods and have some ‘filler’ matter in the resulting ‘empty spaces.’  

The Asha Kiran team chose tiles.  But these are actually reject tiles which the factories sold them at a song – and whose role is to be a honeycomb of alternate materials.  A bit of paint from the bottom and what you have is a ravishing set of ceilings.  While at the same time drastically cutting the costs of the building – and still having perfectly strong buildings to live in for a long time!

Look what a beautiful passage way the patients and their relatives walk along in the main hospital:

And see what the ceiling of one of the staff quarters looks like.

Simple. Repeated.  Stunning.

Using Arches.
The brick symphony is taken further by using a set of basic designs over and over again.

One is the beautiful arch.  The bricks are arrayed on a 180 degree mold, sunshine-wise and then allowed to set.  The arches formed and strong and repeat the lovely semi-circle to a wonderful effect.

All across the Asha Kiran campus you see arches.  Laurie Baker has gone to meet his Maker.  But the arches have been picked up by the next generation of architects and builders who continue to push the Asha Kiran design further.

Like in the training centre.  The arches are of course very visible.  

And when you step inside the training centre you also see the repeated use of cross shaped holes which allow light and air in (and mean less bricks and mortar too – hence lower costs again).

It’s no wonder that the training centre is often used by the Asha Kiran family, other civil society organisations, and government officials too.

When we were there the training centre was being used to build up the basic skills of a new batch of Mother-tongue Learning Education teachers who had just been recruited.  And then on Sunday morning a worship time was held there too.

Use, Reduce, Reuse.
The low-cost approach keeps asking, what can be done cheaper, while still maintaining structure and beauty.   One approach is to make built-in furniture.  Every residential home has built-in cupboards  in the bedrooms and kitchens.  And an L-shaped sitting area where a dining table can go.  Some porches have built-in seats too.

And another is reusing things.

A recent structural audit showed that the basic buildings were very fine – the brick walls will last another 50 years at least.  But some of the concrete roofs were leaking.  What to do?

And so a beautiful idea was brought forward and implemented by Mr. Shaji who has been building the Asha Kiran campus since its inception.

Take used tiles, and layer them on the roofs.  Extra cover.  Protects  the cement roof.  Makes it all look more beautiful.  And is cheap.

Mr. Shaji is able to get used tiles at Rs. 2 a pop.  Add transportation costs and it goes upto Rs. 7 per  tile.  But that is an absolute steal when you think that new tiles cost at least Rs. 40 each.  And so gradually all the slanted roofs, which were previously just a simple concrete slab, are now being dressed with beautifully weathered tiles.

Why is he getting the used tiles so cheap? Because no one else wants to buy them as most new builders want their concrete-bunker buildings…

The used tiles are slipped onto the concrete slabs after some small rills were added to give them some grip – but they are not plastered on – just laid out on the roofs.

 And voila!  A new-old look!

Grow around

The Asha Kiran Hospital campus is a small Eden.  Over the years, trees have been planted and nurtured.  Silver Oaks tower along the roads, with coffee plants growing in the shade and pepper vines climbing up their sides.  A pine-apple or two can be seen.  Jackfruit trees buckle with the abundance of fruit. Mango trees do their stuff with a good harvest every other year.  In addition a dairy provides milk and the goatery is also functioning.  A chicken farm has been hived off to an ex-employee who now runs it as a business.  

There are trees all around the homes: luscious bamboo groves and majestic gul-mohors with their splashes of red-flowers in the warmest part of the year.  This means that the staff homes are not only given the shade of trees but also are situated in the sheer beauty which has sprung up over the years.

And so here we are. 

A really five-star beauty which has come from sheer simplicity and clarity of design lived out and consistently put into practice.   Who says low-cost has to look cheap?

Even more recent buildings, made long after Laurie Bakers demise, bear the finger print of the master builder, and those who continue to build these brick-poetry mansions are allowing the finger-print of the Master Builder to shape their labours of love.

Come, let us walk in a garden.  It’s a wonderful place to live…. 

Would that more people would follow the visionary beauty-creators of Asha Kiran Hospital

A Railway Day

I grew up on the Indian Railways.  Some of my earliest memories are the long summer train rides in sleeper class down to Madras Central.  On arriving, we would then go over to Madras Egmore station to get the metre-gauge overnight train towards Madurai, getting off early in the morning at  Kodai Road station, where a bus would take us up to the coolness of the eucalyptus scented hills.

Other vague memories have me plastered to the open window, looking out ahead to see the steam engine pulling our train forward (!).  Needless to say, we were rather soot-stained dirty at the end of those trips.


These last 6 months have seen us all use the railways a lot – but I think I have never had as many trips in as short a time… and it has been such a thrill to catch trains up and down the country.

Here is ‘a railway day’

It starts before dawn.  At countless railway stations across the nation. People are waiting for their trains.

Eventually, as time and tide pass, and as the sun starts to lighten the skies, the long-desired train trundles in...

Waiting, is of course one of our great Indian virtues.

And there are things that help make the wait bearable. Sometimes barely.

While many a station sells stale tea, there are of course many wonderful exceptions to start your day with.

At Chennai Central, you can get fresh frothy filter coffee

At Vishakaptanam, the idli-wada seller does great business as the travelers get their breakfast.

The savory treats are wrapped in newspaper and you get your coconut chutney and sambhar in seperate plastic bags to douse your breakfast with at your leisure.

"All aboard, Friends!  The train is about to leave!" (we hope…)

Once inside the story changes

Each train has a different vibe, a culture of its own.

Depending which 'class' you are in, you will see different slices of society.

Some a closer proximity than others of course.

.... and all through the journey the tea / coffee wallas walk through hawking their wares... crossing the various classes of bogies - seating car, unreserved (general), sleeper, 3rd AC, 2nd AC, AC chair car - the various combinations and permutations that each train will have

Each bogies has its unique mix of people...

All precious in His sight of course.  

As we sit and listen and talk (less now-a-days after alsmost everyone and his dog has a mobile device) we gather snippets of lives.

In the silence there are also wonderful opportunities to pray quiet blessings into the lives of others…

We now live amidst a wired generation…

Every train has a power outlet to charge our irreplaceable mobiles…

Sleep, especially in the heat – is always a sweet relief…

The best entertainment, however is not on a small screen (even if the Cricket world Cup is going on…)

You just have to gaze out of the windows for big-screen glory:

Some prefer to grab a seat at the base of an open door … with dizzying views down as you cross bridges and go up mountains..

And then you are rewarded with views like this - crossing central India in summer …

Or this scene just after the spring harvest in northern UP....

We live in a vast country… and what better way to get different glimpses of India's varied beauty

Such as crossing mighty rivers (here the Godavari at Rajamundry in Andhra Pradesh)....

And pray, when did you last see a woman carrying 7 pots of water on her head?  (southern Odisha)

Or see shepherds herding their flocks in the twilight?

Or gaze at “progress” in its various shapes… and forms...

All views, courtesy of windows (and maybe a door or two) of Indian railways, all the while taking you to your preferred destination!

Where will your next train ride take you?

The ride itself is worth the ticket price (which is so, so low for most of the trains we use...).

I love opening a door and looking out, watching the loco pull us along through the country side…

There is something magical about seeing the train snake ahead of you, being pulled to an infinite spot on the horizon..

The magical rails takes you up mountains, through gorges...

Or through city-scapes…

Our nation is girded with rails.  

And what a blessing to be able to move around 

And then there are the stations.....

The rustle and crush of getting in and out – especially when it only stops for 2 minutes!

Some stations are just a single platform and a bench or two....

Others are behemoths… places where thousands move forward and backward every day, a teeming mass of humanity that erupts out of trains that pause shortly for breath at their platforms.

Our nation is dotted with stations

The same basic features multiplied or minimal   

Rails. Platforms. Places to sit.  Food stalls (in some).  

The heavy clatter of trains passing through.   

The incessant updates being robo-announced “the inconvenience caused is deeply regretted”.

Some delightfully decorated with relics of ye olde days...

Some never sleep....

And some have the strangest sights in their waiting rooms…

Each station has a unique name

Some with faded signs...

Others fairly grand...

 Some stations are linked with metros and other forms of transportation

Every station having an infinite number of possibilities.   

You watch people and wonder.  

Who is going where?  Why are they dressed this way or that way?  

Who has come to see the person off – and who are the travelers?  

What dreams are being lived out, what hopes are in tatters?

People and luggage.  Hearts and homes.  Going somewhere, or coming from some place.

And our many stations are also dwelling places – some temporary, others semi-permanent – for so, so many.

Its the end of a railway day.

For those of us who are blessed to have one, it is a wonderful joy to come home after a long train ride.  

To see the familiar lights and streets that twinkle ‘welcome back’ to you.

 And finally the almost hesitant way that the train sidles into the final destination.

You see the grey of the platform streaming like a quiet river outside and you know that it's time to step out .

The trip is over. 

Your railway day is done.