Wednesday, 30 September 2009

Living legends: Manjula Shah

Wonders never cease.

The picture shows the senior leadership of Operation Mobilisation - the mission my parents are most closely associated with - having actively served with the movement over 3 decades. In the front row is my Dad. Around him stalwarts from what looks like the late 70s by the hair styles (and amount of hair on Dad's head).

On the left hand side of the picture stands a lady with a batik top, holding hands with a lady in a saree. The saree-clad lady is Mariam DeSouza, with her husband Joseph (the current OM leader) sitting in front of her. The batik-wearing lady visited us in Thane today. Her name is Manjula Shah.

I have grown up knowing Auntie Manjula. Or so I thought. There are certain things you know as a boy and others you do not. Today we found out more about Auntie than I did in all my adolescence.

We had our Positive Friends meeting this afternoon. Last Wednesday of the month. A time for our friends to be encouraged. To sing and share what they have experienced. To be challenged by God's words - and to pray with each other.

Auntie Manjula joined us for this meeting today. She sat beaming through the different sharings that our friends gave. One told how her husband is so much better now. Another about how she has been able to take her medications (she is being treated for multi-drug resistant TB). A third about how he had had his identity as an HIV positive man revealed to his family when a TV crew shot a short feature - and his family friends then found out that he was living with HIV.

I couldn't resist asking Auntie to tell her story. She did.

She started with the obvious. Having limped forward using her calipers - she shared about how she was born in Nairobi to a Gujarathi family who were followers of the Jain faith and how she was infected with polio as a 6 month old baby.

She also shared how she first came in contact with Christians - through attending meetings as a young girl - hoping for healing of her leg. In the process she met Jesus in a personal way and became His devotee. But the leg was still there - and she continued to ask for total and miraculous healing.

Matters came to a head in her late teens. Auntie Manjula was at a series of meetings where she was fervently praying for healing. Partly because she believed that God wanted her better - partly because she wanted her other family members to have proof of the power of Jesus. She fasted for 3 days and then gave God her ultimatum. "If you don't heal me today - then I think I will have to reassess what I know about you...."

God answered her - but not as she expected. During that climatic day - she opened her Bible and seemingly at random the passage she read was Paul talking about how he had asked God 3 times to remove the 'thorn from his flesh' - and how the answer he got was: "my grace is sufficient for you."

Manjula told those of us in the room today - HIV positive and negative alike - that God spoke to her so clearly through those words. And that she for the first time spontaneously told God: "thank you for my leg" and felt so much of the worries and bitterness drain away. And how she received God's promises to her that He would look after her. Her parents were worried about her marriage - and who would take care of her when they died - on that day God told Manjula that He was her Father - and would look out for her. She also received assurance about her other deep fear - that her other family members would be able to know Jesus. In that maelstorm of messages - God assured her that this too would take place - even though her leg was not going to be miraculously healed in the way that she wanted. And that in His time each of her loved ones would come to love Jesus too.

There are many more stories to be told. But here is the gist. After her family left East Africa and settled back in Gujarat - and in the UK - Manjula finished her college in Baroda. She then joined OM and served with my parents - eventually providing leadership for all the women's work. Her leg went with her everywhere she went. And her heart of love and compassion and her zeal for her loving Jesus too.

The last 20 odd years have been spent serving with local government in Britain. A sprightly 60, Auntie Manjula ended up her career with 4 years as a diversity officer which she thoroughly enjoyed.

And then she got cancer.

About 2 years ago we got an email and feared the worst. Our Auntie Manjula has mouth cancer. She cannot eat from the mouth any more. She cannot speak. She is in hospital and critical.

Today, Manjula Auntie filled in the story. It was all true. She was admitted for massive chemo and radio therapy. She developed severe infections. She did not know whether she would leave the hospital alive. After 32 days she was discharged. She did not eat food orally for 1.5 years. The thought of coming back to India was remote.

But today she stood in-front of our friends with HIV and shared the final bit of her story. The therapies have kicked in. She is being amazingly healed of her cancer. God is not finished with Auntie Manjula yet. A sprightly 60 - she is a survivor. Her cancer is in remission and she is able to eat. She speaks - something that she was not able to do as recently as January this year. She is full of the quiet joy of the overcomer.

Auntie shared her story which blended in with the other stories of hope. We are so proud to know this saint. We are so blessed to see God use His dear children in such amazing ways. A day well lived for us all. A life well-trodden for our Jesus-loving example.

Tuesday, 29 September 2009

Its a boy!

Another baby was born yesterday. He joins the hundreds of thousands who were born across India on the 28th of September 2009.

His mother and father are HIV positive.

His parents tried to abort him a number of times early in their pregnancy.

His mother was so sad and sick that she tried to commit suicide by pouring kerosine on herself.

Mercifully she did not succeed - in either attempt at killing.

This baby boy was born - and to what joy. We just got off the phone with his father - he is so grateful. The baby's father can hardly bring out the words. His mother is radiant.

Another beautiful child has seen the light of day. Another wonderful packet of potential. Who will this child become? What steps will he take in the future? What joys and sorrows will he experience?

Will he be HIV positive himself?

By God's grace - actioned through the care that we have provided HIV positive mothers - not a single child has been born positive to us so far. We have high hopes that this little boy will continue this happy pattern of outcomes.

One thing we know. This baby is already a miracle child. Having survived so far. And having brought so much joy already.

Happy Birthday little as-yet-unnamed boy! We are all very glad you are here!

Saturday, 26 September 2009

Water on tap

I just finished washing the morning dishes. Nothing to it. Turn on the tap. Wash. Turn off the tap. Water gushing out. Water swirling away – soap-sudsy – clean dishes put up on the rack to dry. The pleasure of cleanliness.

For the last 1.5 years, however, that hasn’t been the norm in the Eicher household. We have had water come through the taps – but intermittently. Usually between 6 AM – 10 AM and 7 PM – 10 PM.

Our lives pretty quickly arranged themselves around the water timings. Baths, washing clothes, dishes, plants, floors – all done in the shortest time possible to maximise the water availability.

Many an evening meeting or other engagement was not done because of having to be present for the evening water flow. Domestic life follows water availability.

Things have taken a turn for the better with the society wrangling a new water connection to the municipal water supply. For 2 weeks now we have had the luxury of water on tap. Almost round the clock.

Before we go back to assuming this is normal, spare a thought for most of the rest of our city. The majority of the greater Mumbai’s 18+ million have minimal access to water. Our urban population, by the way, is more than the population of Australia – maybe we need to have the next cricket series between Mumbai and the Ozzies.

The great thirsty metropolis is sending its feelers ever further into the hinterland to slake its unending thirst. We already are tapping reservoirs 200 kms away from us – with huge pipes sending the water Mumbai-ward.

But then the question of distribution takes place. The pipes are not ‘on’ all the time. They fill up local tanks – which then supply to their designated areas. These also release the water at certain times. The power that the ‘water engineers’ wield is huge. An extra few minutes here and there – can earn them a pretty packet. As can not releasing water even if they have it in their tanks.

Housing societies like ours demand water. And are willing to pay. This has led to a huge industry of ‘water tankers’ – beat up trucks that fill up water and bring it to the societies – where it is emptied into the society’s tank – for a fee. It is in the interest of the tanker operators for there to be water shortages. A bit of money given here and there can insure this – even in times of plenty. And then again – the huge demand for water and the dizzying rise of apartments ensure that however much is slurped through the big pipes into the city – there will always be a need for more.

For the poor, water means a common tap. Lines of plastic vessels waiting for it to start flowing. Or a meagre amount dripping through a small pipe.

Living as privileged elite, we found the rationing of water for a few hours each day hard to take. For most people its not a matter of hours – but of minutes.

Or of kilometres.

Away from the razzle-dazzle of Mumbai-town, vast stretches of the rural hinter-land continue to eke out the barest of necessities. Women (it always falls on their shoulders) lift containers of water and walk from the nearest well or river to their homes – small, thin water-tankers, bearing the fluid of life.

Thursday, 24 September 2009

A few good men, and women

I was talking with a friend of mine today who just started working for a large social service organisation out of Delhi.

He offered me a bus. A fully equipped medical van - and the salaries and support money to keep it going.

The task for us was to staff it, and make sure it is used to reach the poor / rural population.

I immediately said: 'no.'

We just don't have the staff.

2 years ago we had 6 staff who visiting our positive friends in their homes.

This morning only 1 of the 6 went out to meet people on her home-visits. Daniel and Sanjeev have moved on for higher studies (MSW and nursing respectively). Lata has taken an indefinite leave of absence to help her sister through recovery from severe mental illness. Seema's father suffered a stroke last week and she has been looking after him. Rahul was attending a 3 day pastor's conference for his denomination where his church was given the role of leading worship (and he is the worship leader in his church). That left sister Shanti going out to meet our HIV positive friends this morning - aided by one of the UBS interns - and with 2 of our nurses filling in part of the gaps left by the other absentees in the home-based care team.

We are facing a severe shortage of hands - and hearts - on the front line.

And in all of this we are planning to expand our work - with the idea of scaling up to a community care centre which will support the home-based care work with in-patient care. By the end of October we will need to identify at least 1 full time doctor to join us - with additional nurses.

And more people on the ground meeting people in their homes.

We need a few good men - and women!

Wednesday, 23 September 2009

Quintiple Nelson

I just noticed that our hard-working little counter is sporting a very palindromic number.

In the game of cricket, the score of 111 is called a 'Nelson'. This apparently is in reference to the missing parts of Admiral Nelson's body (an eye and an arm - but not the leg that some thought he lost too).

Do we have a quintiple Nelson here? Thanks to all the loving eyes that have stopped in to have 'chai' with us - at least virtually. Do stop in and have a real cuppa (or 'cutting' for you Bombay-wallahs) with the Thane Eichers one of these days!

Googling a name

A long long time ago the word 'google' was one of the funny little facts that young teenage lads took pleasure out of knowing:"the number formed by the numeral 1 followed by a million zeros."

That was before a certain corporate behemoth came into being...

These days when I get an email out of the blue - like the one that arrived day-before-yesterday - I usually run a google search on the name.

That email came into our inbox courtesy of the career network of one of my alma maters. Searching the name of the person who wrote the note on google brought me first to a lady who had donated US$ 2300 to Hillary Clinton's presidential campaign. A quick look at the address of the striking middle-aged donor showed her as unlikely to be the email author. She lived half-way across the US from the august college. Looking well into her 5th decade, she was also from an unlikely demographic age group (though in the US college system you never know).

Within the next two search pages, however, I was pretty sure that I had found the person who wrote the note. Same college. Part of a Christian fellowship group on campus. Studying the same field. Amazingly, there was an account of how this person had been involved in genetically determining that an Amazonian epiphyte sample assigned to her was a totally new species. She had used genetic tools to determine that what she had was an unknown part of the tree of life!

To think of the freedom and encouragement students are given in the US! What we call a 'graduation' student doing primary scientific research is almost unthinkable in our higher educational institutions. Most students are mugging for exams - or playing catchup because things out of their control (like their professors going on strike like most Mumbai colleges had this year). Would that our colleges here in happy Bharat-land would experience such bliss.

Doing this to your own name does bring up some interesting links too.

Sadly, I have found out that one of my namesakes (written the traditional way as "Andy") is accused of child molestation. A slew of Andreas Eichers seem to be hanging out in Germany and Switzerland (not surprising since Eicher is a die-hard Mennonite name and Andreas is about as German as you can get - other than the odd Greek that is...).

Where do our digital footprints lead us? Will someone 40 years from now 'searching' the phrase you are reading now be led to this page? Or will the sheer mass of electronic detritus actually overwhelm the systems that we are using now? Will things written today return to haunt us, over and over again? And what about the ever-expanding bubble of information that we are sending out into space (most of which of course is sheer blather) from our blue planet?

The issue of saying something and then not being able to retract it has been around with us since the beginning of time. Jesus put it succinctly: "Let your 'yes' be 'yes' and your 'no' be 'no.' Anything else is from the devil."

Our words - every single one of them - are not just stored in the massive storage vaults of our sub-conscious mind - but exist forever in the eternal mind of God Himself. Anything less would mean a less-than-omniscient God - thus an entity hardly worth thinking about. Only a person who is at least a google times better than google is worth worshipping.

Did anyone say 'to the power of a google'?

Monday, 21 September 2009


Here's one from the archives: Asha and Enoch on Enoch's first day of school in June 2005.

He was 2.5 years old at the time.

The school was nursery - and his shorts were the length of a pair of slacks. He had 'got admission' due to a change in the eligibility dates. 2 years later we asked the school to let him 'repeat Jr. KG' because he was young for the class.

Our kids both had 4 years of 'school' before they started 1st standard. They are now in 3rd and 1st standard - and do not seem to have suffered too much from having attended school for so many years already...

I had zero years of school before I started in the 'infants school' of the Cathedral and John Connon School - up on Malabar Hill - a few stone-throws away from where I was born in the St. Elizabeth's nursing home. In between my birth and admission into 1st standard - our peripathetic family had moved over 10 times. My mother tried feverishly to prep me up for starting school. We were living in the then distant fishing village of Versova - and my 'school' with her consisted of her working hard to teach me the alphabet. She used flash cards to try and teach me to read. I couldn't understand why the word "Jeep" should not start with "G" - since the sound was so apt. Life in the fast lane...

In contrast to my early days, we as a family have been blessed with such a great amount of stability in our home here in Thane. We have now finished 4.5 years living at Happy Valley - and have been deeply blessed to be in such a quiet place (for Mumbai standards - and tonights loudspeakers from the Navratri celebrations were switched off at precisely 10 PM).

Being in one place for so many years has also allowed the kids to have security - and has provided a haven for us - esp. in the light of the brokenness of so many of the people we are serving the HIV/AIDS work we do.

Sheba and I are able to structure our work time so that we have maximum time with the kids. I leave at 8 AM and am back at 11 AM for lunch with the kids and then put them on their school bus at 12.30 PM. Sheba leaves for the JSK clinic just before 11 AM and is there till at least 3 (which can stretch to 5 PM too). I am back at the office at 12.30 (we live just next to our workplace - a walking commute) and put in work till 6 PM. The kids return from school at 6.30 PM.

Tonight Asha, Enoch and I did some 'running' outside, ending up with 'long-jumps' on the grass in our building society's park. Then as it was dark, we came up to our 7th floor flat and were treated to a dinner of rice, rasam and bindi/potato fry. Then we read another of the heirloom treasures that my parents have so lovingly kept for us (now grown up) kids - a lavishly illustrated book of nature and Bible readings called 'Character Sketches." Sheba cross-stitched while I read - all of us lying in bed - which brought me back to my youth and our family lying together at the end of the day.

And now the quiet of the night. All are asleep. The fans are whirring - the odd crow croaks outside - a dog barks. Another day is over. Nunc dimittis.

Saturday, 19 September 2009


I went down to buy bread this morning.

The shops were closed, so I looked around for the roving 'anda-pao' seller on his bicycle, ringing his bell and driving a large black cycle loaded with fresh buns and his wire basket of eggs.

The chemist shop (closed at that early hour) had a new advertisement. A happy looking couple. He lovingly putting her hand on her shoulder. Both smiling at the camera. You felt warm looking at these two.

The product?

"Unwanted 72"

If there ever was a name that was apt it is this. The marketing geniuses at Mankind Pharmacy (another stroke of brilliance - you would think this is all satire, but it is a multi-crore rupee company) have decided to call their 'emergency contraceptive pill' the fetching name of "Unwanted 72"

The happy couple smiling at the camera does not want a child. They have had sex. Happily, a remedy is just a pill away. Pop one of them and that "Unwanted" one is gone. Story over. Happiness reigns.

Or does it?

"Unwanted 72" has a competitor in the emergency contraceptive market. The market leader - advertised heavily on Meru Cabs and other sites all over the city is the sleekly named "i-pill" from Cipla.

Sounding like the latest addition to the Apple computer family, the 'i-pill' seems to indicate something very neat, very crisp, very savy, very now.

The cover shows a stylised figure - with the pill serving as the head - and hands thrown up. Freedom!

The pill itself has a pleasing pink colour and is decorated with a little butterfly.

Just what the baby needs to fly away.

I am so glad that emergency contraception was not available in early 1941. As the son of a father borne out of wedlock - whose mother put him up for adoption - I know that the world would be a far, far poorer place without Ray Eicher.

Sadly our society has consigned the miracle of life to be flushed out whenever we so desire. Having worked with parents who have tried to self-abort their children, we see the totally rotten side of life. But we also see that they are responding to a larger set of cues that are screamed at them from kith and kin and every other hoarding it seems: "look out for yourself" "be free" "don't let a pregnancy get in the way of your dreams" "enjoy sex without a thought of what it means other than getting your bit of the action" etc. etc.

Unwanted. But precious.

Friday, 18 September 2009

Murky waters

Two images - courtesy my daily fix on the BBC news website.

The first a river, make that an ocean of milk, being spilled on a field in Belgium. Its beyond me to understand the ebbs and flow of agricultural economics in Europe - but to waste such a colossal amount of milk - when so many have so little...

The second shot - a dramatic top down pic of a man immersing himself in the Hoogly. Despite many attempts at restoration and cleaning - our rivers remain foul.

This evening we considered bathing the kids in some water that we had been storing (our taps have been running only 4 hours a day for months) but seeing the sediment at the bottom of the barrel we opted to open the tap instead. The coming year will see another crush of humanity around the ancient city of Haridwar - bathing during the Kumbh Mela - in a river that even at that point is turbid.

Living on a liquid planet - its no surprise that fluids are so elemental to us. Each Sunday we remember the death and resurrection of our Lord by ingesting a small symbolic amount of grape juice (or acai berry) to remember the most costly flood of all - the blood that coursed out of a battered body so many years ago outside the city of peace.

Wednesday, 16 September 2009

A few steps forward

Good news.

Vishranti is better. A lot better.

Some of you gentle readers may remember the apparently hopeless situation Vishranti was in 2 months ago. We took a deep breath and sent her and her sister and mother to CMC Vellore for psychiatric treatment and therapy.

Last week the wonderful treating doctor called up. Full of old-world charm, this amazing lady told us that Vishranti was really recovering well - and that the treatment and counselling for her and her mother showed amazing progress - and that it seems all the electric shocks and other treatment modalities that she had received in the previous months do not seem to have had long-term damage to her.

She is ready to come back.

The question is where will she come back to?

Over and over again we face this challenge when our dear friends are helped in some of the wonderful institutions of healing and rehabilitation. After the course is over, then what?

How to get back to the sticky, messy place where Vishranti came from? The villagers have told Vishranti's brother that under no circumstances do they want her back. The last time they assaulted her. Living with her mother is anyway not what she wants to do. She has 2 children and her estranged husband too.

So with the wonderful improvement in Vishranti's mental health - we now have the challenge of moving her forward. The treating physicians at CMC have suggested that she stay with her sister for some time. That means coming here, since Vishranti's sister is one of our JSK staff. They also suggested that she be given some light work to keep her occupied and increase her confidence.

We expect the phone to ring any time and hear Vishranti's sister tell us which train they are arriving on. For us, it means organising a new place for them to stay. Finding out a suitable place for Vishranti to work/serve. Exploring long-term options for both.

Never a dull moment! And aren't we glad for it!

Tuesday, 15 September 2009

Asmita's story

We looked after her father till he died of HIV - an old man. Her mother has HIV too - but has not been much in contact with Jeevan Sahara.

She came last week with her mother. After her mother had been examined she told Sheba her story.

Asmita (pseudonym of course) has been recently married. She is looking to try and get a job in the police. As with many who get married - the couple was blessed with a pregnancy.

But Asmita's mother-in-law had other plans. She wanted Asmita to get the police job. She insisted that Asmita abort. Finally Asmita did. Our "Medical Termination of Pregnancy" Act allows for a wide range of reasons to end an unborn child's life. Many things that are legal are not right.

Today this young woman is a wreck. On the outside she maintains her poise. On the inside it is a different story. She suffers from painful and irregular blood flows. She feels physically weak. But most heart-breakingly, whenever she sees little children, she remembers her own unborn one.

What do you say to a sister like Asmita? Mercifully, God gave Sheba words of comfort and truth. Words that helped Asmita verbalise and seek forgiveness and healing for the loss. There is no simple solution, but there is the path of forgiveness and reconciliation. Our Lord has told us that we receive comfort that flows out of His sufferings, and allows us to comfort others in any kind of distress.

We don't know what the next steps in this young woman's life will be. But we are so grateful that with all our limitations, that we were able to minister in a small way to her. Another family who we have come to know because of the challenge of HIV - but into which we are able to shine at least a small ray of light and hope.

Rabid dogs

I have somehow overlooked my drivers license expiring. 20 years is a long time - and I recently found out that it had expired in May! That too the dear document was a shabby paper jobbie from Dehra Dun when it was still part of Uttar Pradesh. It will take some time to get a brand new smart-card style license made here. So till I get my new one I am doing a lot of walking these days.

The other day I saw something I had never seen. A thin, mangy dog with foamy saliva dripping from his mouth. It was the thinnest dog imaginable - and seemed oddly detached - circling round itself in the middle of the shady street near our office. But it had the menace of that dreaded disease of rabies all over it.

While getting a ride back from a late-night church leaders meeting - my friend told me that one of the reasons we have so many dogs roaming around was because of Menaka Gandhi's animal welfare activism while she was in power. "Prior to her the dog squad would come and take the animals and drop them in the jungle - where they became food for wild animals. Now they are sterilised and returned back to where they are picked up."

Dog sterilisation doesn't seem to be working - there are plenty of mongrels of all shapes and sizes - and some of the most equisitely horrible suppurating wounds all over their backs - living wrecks.

But back to rabies. Every now and then our friends will bring a child in and say that a dog bit it. Off to the government hospital for the rabies vaccine!

Sadly - a decade ago - a little boy in Mussoorie did not get the vaccine in time. His parents had come to India from the US and were living in Mussoorie - and their son was a friend of the animals. It seems that the little boy was never bitten - but often licked by the stray dogs he befriended. Much later the parents found out to their sadness that the strange disease their son had was rabies. He was shifted to a hospital in Delhi but of no avail. He died.

Amazingly, it is now possible to survive rabies. A young woman lives in the US today as testimony to it. Joanna Giese has now survived for 5 years after she was found to have rabies - and given an induced coma by physicians who then administered anti-virals to knock out the rabies in her - before bringing her back to consciousness.

The heart of any good public health practitioner is always warmed with miracle survivor stories, is made happy to see people get prompt treatment after early detection, but really rejoices when the root cause of the disease is removed. The time has come - and is long overdue - for our dear wandering mongrels to be promoted to the happy hunting grounds - and only those hounds who have human care-givers looking directly after them to be allowed to roam the streets of Mumbai town. Alas, to do such a thing would incur the wrath of sundry citizens. In the mean-time more rabid dogs stagger the streets.

Saturday, 12 September 2009

Services no longer required

Sheba met a young woman last week. Young in years. Terribly old in experience.

Sunita - as we will call her - was married off early. Nothing unusual in that. Things fell apart. She and her husband divorced. She was home again.

Her parents married her off again. Her new husband had a very sick mother. Sunita also got sick. She was caring for her mother-in-law. It got so bad that Sunita could not look after her mother-in-law and went to stay with her parents to recuperate. In the mean time she found out that she was HIV positive.

After recovering her health some-what, Sunita went back to her husband. Shortly afterwards her mother-in-law died. She told her husband that she was HIV positive and urged him to get tested. He refused. He also told her that she was no longer wanted. He had married her only to look after his mother. He sent her home. Shamed. Soiled goods.

Sunita's parents are livid with her. They accuse her of being a prostitute. She is back with them.

A few weeks ago, Sunita started going to a prayer meeting in the slum she lives in. The lady who runs the meeting put her in touch with a couple who have been reaching out to people with HIV in their area. They brought Sunita to meet Sheba.

Life is really rotten for Sunita. But she still breathes. She still wants to live. She still is precious.

Behind the glamour and glitz of money-fast-bucks-success driven Mumbai - are thousands of Sunitas. Lives crumpled and crushed in the cruelty of the get-ahead-use-people-as-trash culture that we see around us.

We are grateful for simple people who are reaching out in love to Sunita and others like her. They do not have magic solutions, but they care. They are loving and praying with her. They are seeking some form of reconciliation with her parents. They are holding out hope - to people whose services are no longer required.

Friday, 11 September 2009

Caste in stone?

I went to Enoch's school today to sign a register confirming his admission into First Standard.

It will only take 10 minutes - the circular said - and it only took that long. The line of parents quickly formed and we trundled into the school and dutifully checked up in the register whether the name had been written correctly as well as the other details.

In the over-sized register, with its neat annotations in blue ink, one interesting column stood out from the rest.

It said "caste".

I looked up and down the column. Most children had had the word "Hindu" written there.

Enoch had the word "Christian" next to his name.

The man ahead of me was a Jain. Next to his son's name was "Hindu."

The school is run by a Jain trust - so could hardly be faulted for not knowing who Jains are.

But the question remains. Why are so still so obsessed about classifying people into groups? What value is there for the school to put this designation on a child?

And what is our real identity? Is my son a Christian because his parents have put that word in the 'religion' box on his admission form? We certainly did not write 'Christian' at anytime where a question of 'caste' was asked. In fact I don't even recall the word appearing in any of the admission forms. If there was a question we must have left it blank.

The reason I had to come and give my signature is because the details of Enoch Anand Graceson Eicher (all the names we have genorously endowed our son with *were* spelled correctly - thank you!) will now become part of Enoch's official identity. His school certificate will be used later at various times. But with the names I have given, we also see Enoch being put into a certain box.

Mind you, I did not have much time to ruminate on all of this at the time. The circular said it would take 10 minutes to do. I had budgeted about that much time to get the job done. I signed and left.

And so my darling boy gets his first bit of branding. Its a bit of a cruel world isn't it? Not that we have to buy into it - not that we have to kow-tow to everything around us - but the fact is that the folks who set the categories (or purpose or otherwise) usually come up trumps. As Enoch grows up, we will have lots of opportunities to talk about these things - but strong structures are in place - to keep people in their places.

Just one more little potshot and then I'll sign off. When I meet folks the inevitable question comes up: where are you from? 4 decades of answering the question - and I still on occasion find that it gets my goat (o.k. - change that to 'often gets my goat' - or bakri!).

I usually bring out the potted family history - but most of the time my interrogator is not actually listening. He is waiting for a cue. Once I say that my great-grandfather was born in Canada, then there is a smile on his face, a relaxation - a little bit of internal silent dialogue goes on in the dear man's head: "Ah! Now we know where you are from. You are Canadian!"

The fact that we have 105 years of history in apna Bharat. The fact that my dear G-Granddad was a mennonite-french-descended-switzerland-emigrated chappie who himself went to the US of A doesn't matter. A box has been ticked. A label has been found. He's a foreigner. A Canadian. That's who he his.

And we are like this only. We love to classify and categorize. Our restless minds unsettled by the mish-mash, by the uncertain. We need order. Who is who. Where are you from. What box do you fit into. No wonder the Brits did so well here for so long...

Wednesday, 9 September 2009

Living art

We eat beauty. We drink it by the clear cold glass-full of water.

This evening we consumed it by the bite-sized dosa-and-peanut-n-coconut-chutney mouthfulls - with soft hot idlis as chasers. Very stuffed we were at the end. And then some 44% cocoa dark chocolate while we read Character Sketches as a family - reclining in a big bed. How amazing this life that we have to live. How precious the moments of it.

And all around us a blaze of colour blesses our eyes. And waits to be transcribed, transposed and illuminated.

Earlier in the evening Enoch finished this study in colour and abstract form. "Send it to Stefan uncle by email" he chortled. I decided to go one up and put it up this way.

It is just one of the colourful studies Enoch has done in his note-book - along with his school studies. As a conscientious 1st standard student he is no stranger to home-work. But what a joy to see the colourful pictures punctuating the pages of pencil-writing that Enoch has already worked through this year.

Speaking of our amazingly artistic - and art-promoting brother, Stefan and Neeru (and Ashish and baby Anjali) are about to go to the US for a development tour - they will be meeting with current and potential partners for their Art for Change foundation.

One of the highlights of the upcoming tour is a series of lectures and interactions with students and donors at our alma mater of Taylor University. Another event is the Limner Society's 9th annual art gathering - this time in Orlando, Florida. Finally - Stefan and Neeru and kids will have the joy of being with Mum and Dad at our brother Upendra's wedding to Sathya in New York on October 24th.

Do write to if you would like to meet up with them.

The final frontier

I am a sucker for space.

Maybe it was being born in the last year of the 60's. Perhaps it was reading those stacks of old Popular Science magazines from the late 50s and early 60s in the Alliance library in Akola. Maybe it was the sheer romance of leaving the planet behind and soaring into worlds unknown.

The release of the image above - taken recently by the refurbished Hubble space telescope - rekindles the old fire. Why does everything have to be so totally, achingly beautiful? To think of the vast immensity of the structures captured by the camera - and to see so much luminous beauty just boggles the mind. On another level, it seems to me that the photo looks suspiciously like a comical pointing elephant too.

On one hand the awesome wonders of inter-stellar creation. On the other the amazing delight of recognising beauty - taking place within the mysteries of my head.

No wonder space will remain - has to remain - something to be awed about. How quickly we delve into the mundane and humdrum - to drown out the call of beauty.

The poet wrote so many years ago: I see the night-sky, the works of your fingers, the moon and stars suspended in space - oh what is man that you are mindful of him?

Thursday, 3 September 2009


By God's grace we see people with HIV living longer, and living better than ever before.

Thanks to access to life-extending medications, many are living well beyond what we would have expected even as little as 5 years ago.

Since we have started a testing and counselling centre, we are also seeing a different set of people as well. Till now Jeevan Sahara Kendra was working primarily with the very ill - and with their survivors. Now we are coming into contact with people who are earlier in their HIV disease. The sick welcomed home-visits. Those who recently found out about their HIV - and are not very sick - often do not want to be met at home. There is too much at stake for them. Loss of face can mean loss of everything if others find out they have HIV.

Most put off sharing about their HIV status with others for another day. Coping by denying / procrastination.

Despite the medical advances - we still see the deep roots of fear and loathing around HIV.

How to over come this? Our media has had campaigns - our film stars have showed up at 'AIDS Prevention concerts'. Everyone seems to know at least a little about HIV. But at the same time the deep fear and visceral hostility and apathy continue.

A recent contact who sadly succumbed to a TB infection last month is a case in point. After his untimely death almost none of the relatives came to his funeral. Some came wearing masks (this was prior to the main swine-flu scare in Mumbai). The family as so grateful when our team visited the day after the death and spent time talking and listening to the remaining members.

With so much fear - is it even possible to share one's HIV status - especially if it is HIV positive?

We were challenged last month by Bobby Zachariah - who recently moved on after having served with the Salvation Army's AIDS programmes for the past 12 years. His point was that true community-based care will only happen when we start including the neighbours in care. And this only happens with disclosure. When people with HIV tell others about their status.

Our dear friend John Forbes challenged us on this at a retreat that he lead for Positive Friends of Faith. Quoting Psalm 51.6, he reminded us that God desires truth in the inner parts. As a person living with HIV - and thriving - John helped us see that understanding our status and coming to terms with the reality of it is essential for any real change and transformation to take place.

Its just so hard.

So many whom we are meeting these days want treatment. They just don't want others to know. Be it fear. Be it guilt. Men are not telling their wives that they are HIV positive. Women are not telling their partners that they have HIV. How to move forward? How to help our friends take a humble but active role in confronting their own HIV status?

And can we even move a step further?

Could we see disclosure as not a thing to fear, but a tool to empower? A way of stating clearly and participating fully in the community - even if there seems precious little community around? Could we expect God to help individuals own up to their loved ones? Can we see relatives and friends to support and forgive and encourage so that people with HIV can take the next step and live lives in the open instead of in hiding?

Its strange that though we have been involved with these issues so long, that we are still working on the essentials, the basics.

I am due to lead a JSK staff counselling study on the topic of Disclosure on Friday. Prayers and suggestions most appreciated.

picture from the www - not known persons to us - for illustration only

Wednesday, 2 September 2009

Dinner in honour of Yashmeet

Yashmeet - the wonderful wife of Sheba's brother Peter celebrated her birthday on the 2nd of Sept.

We would have loved to get on a Kenya Airways or Air India flight and make the hop over the Arabian Sea to meet them in Nairobi.

Since we could not do that, we celebrated with a small supper - chappatis and channa - salad and dip - and a banana cake! A happy birthday song and the candles burning here reminded us of our loved ones scattered so far. We prayed for Yashmeet and Peter and their lovely daughter Anmol on this special day.

Blest be the ties that bind...