Wednesday, 31 August 2011

Preeti's story

Last night a woman got on the ground and prayed.

We had just finished our Tuesday evening study. We meet in the home of Shanti – one of our JSK staff and fellow church members. Besides Shanti, Sheba and myself – we were a small group – two young adult brothers, two pre-teen sisters, and the lady. All the lives have been touched by AIDS. The brothers were orphaned when the oldest was just 14. The girls’ mother normally comes to this weekly study at Shanti’s home. But the mother did not attend tonight – because she has been feeling sick. She has HIV. And the lady who prayed has been living with HIV for years.

Lets call her Preeti.

Preeti is a tall woman whose life has been through the pits – and then some more.

When we got home - Sheba and I reviewed Preeti’s experiences and had to shudder at just how awful some of her experiences were.

Early on, after getting to know Preeti, our staff had taken her children to a special camp. In the middle of the camp – late one night – Preeti’s husband showed up and demanded that the kids go with him. He was going to the village. He left Preeti behind. Abandoned her and took the kids to his parents’ house.

We heard that his parents told him to marry again. But he was HIV positive too. And soon he fell sick. Preeti swallowed her pride and went to his village to look after him. She lovingly cared for him in his final days. After he died, his parents told Preeti to take the children and leave. She did.

She came back to Thane. Her eldest daughter had dropped out of school and was working as a maid cleaning floors in different homes – just like Preeti. But Preeti was also not well. She had repeated painful collections of pus in her upper thigh. It was horrible. Sheba put her on TB treatment. Preeti’s immunity was low so we started her on anti-retroviral therapy. She was struggling financially with her three children and her repeated illnesses. Would she even survive? We wondered about who would care for the kids – should they be put in an orphanage?

In the midst of the darkness, pin-pricks of light appeared. They were so small at first that we hardly noticed. Preeti started to pray. One of her abscesses burst and drained so completely that it was as if a surgeon had done it – and a trained nurse had then dressed the wound.

Then the light started to shine more. Preeti’s daughter started back in school. We found a couple who began quietly paying the rent of the small room where Preeti and her children stay. Preeti stuck to her TB meds and completed the many-month long course. She stuck to her ART meds as well. She worked. And prayed. Preeti started attending a local prayer group too.

I did not hear much of her for some months. In our work that can be a good sign – it’s the families who are going through complicated times that we tend to hear most about in our JSK staff meetings. In Preeti’s case it was a very good sign. She was rebuilding her life.

After this evening’s study we asked each other whether there were any things people wanted prayer for. Preeti beamed and said that she is so grateful that she was able to get a whole month’s worth of medicine today. The govt. ART centre in town has been running low on medicines for the last few months – and so people who are getting ART from them were often given medicines for only 8 days at a time and then told to come back for more. This is very hard for working people like Preeti. So Preeti was so thankful to get her full month’s worth of meds after quite some time. What struck me was her radiant joy. Instead of cribbing about what she had been through over the past few months – she was just so glad to get the medicines this time.

After we had prayed for all – and Shanti went into the other room to get coffee and biscuits – Preeti said she wanted to pray. She slipped down from the diwan and kneeled on the ground. And then she poured out her heart to Jesus in Marathi. It was deeply moving to hear the beautiful torrent of words. And to hear her pray earnestly for Sheba and myself and the kids.

We parted ways outside Shanti’s home on a drizzly and dark monsoonal night. The yellow street-lights saw us stepping out onto the street with the autorickshaws scurrying back home, wending our way past the vendours selling dried fish and small piles of vegetables. Preeti said a final good by – as did the girls – and then they were swallowed up by the streams of people.

Hidden in the dark city we live in – below the flash and the sorrow – there are stories of hope. Stories whose chronicler is not the frilly fanzines or the august financial broadsheets. There are people who do not make it into the glossy photo-spreads of the latest starlet showing skin. There are folks like our Preeti – whose deep hope reminds us that life is worth the living.

Tuesday, 30 August 2011


Our amazing friend Philip B just spent a few hours with us over the weekend.

Having him in our home is always a blessing. His irenic demeanour, his comfortable smile, his honest quest as a follower of Yeshu-Masih - all of these blend into an on-going conversation that spans however short or long time Phil is with us.

This visit was no less.

We were blessed with new insights into him and a wonderful variety of thoughts about what he has read and where he has been.

One of the many projects he has is the lovely website: This Indian Life. Very worth clicking and browsing around.

An avid lens-man, Phil loves clicking.

Here is a shot of Asha and myself that just arrived along with Phil's gracious thankyou email.


A teachable moment

We were eating lunch. The newspaper was open.

Enoch read an exerpt which had been highlighted - and then asked me the question any father dreads to hear.

"Daddy, what is Lady Gaga?"

The quote in question went as follows "Twitter and Facebook are great for organising and spreading a message of protest, but it can also spread a message of caution, delay, confusion or, I don't have time for all this politics, did you see what Lady Gaga is wearing?"

Enoch is waiting for me.

Small swallow and then jump into the answer.

"Enoch, you know that there are some times people try to get attention by wearing very few clothes?"

Enoch: "Yes"

"And you know that people look at them in bad ways? Well Lady Gaga is a person who does that a lot - and she is very famous for doing that."

Enoch: "OK"

So there you have it. My first conversation with my son about Lady Gaga.

What a world young Enoch is in. What a world Enoch's Daddy lives in.

Saturday, 27 August 2011

A smile

In the dimming of a monsoonal evening - it was her smile that stood out.

We had just finished a small time of prayer.

The setting is the corner room of our Jeveen Sahara Kendra Care Centre.

Her husband was lying in his bed. We had just sang and prayed and talked with them about hope. I had talked about Mat. 11.28 where Jesus tells us "come unto me - all you who are weak and heavy-laden - and I will give you rest."

Throughout the time I could see her smile. Radiant.

Lets call her Rita. And lets call her husband Binod.

Binod has HIV. His CD4 count is pitifully low. Only 76. He is suffering from diarrheoa. Two days ago he went 25 times to the toilet.

Binod and Rita are from a village beyond a nearby town. They heard about us through a doctor. They came. Sheba admitted them yesterday afternoon.

As the monsoon rain poured down outside, and Agnes the nurse on duty, uncle Salins, Amol and I were in the room with Binod and Rita, I saw briefly the world through her eyes. The sudden change from wherever they were - whatever fear-filled situation they had been living through - to a beautiful, clean place - where the nurses speak with love, where hope is given.

The smile reflected that.

We don't see many smiles like that.

Most of our friends are in such complicated situations that even when they come here the burdens and the knotted situations that they are living through dampen the spirit.

But for Rita - not even 2 hours of care for her husband Binod - was enough to bring a rainbow of beauty on her face.

At the end of our prayer Rita tried to touch my feet. We dissuaded her telling her that only God deserves our adoration.

This is why we are here. With all our short-comings - this is what we seek to do - to be a safe place for those whose lives are anything but safe.

The person I thought would be admitted did not come for admission yet.

Manish is a man with two teenaged sons - and who lost his wife to HIV 4 months ago. Manish is very sick. He has diabetes and his kidneys are losing their function. But he is afraid of treatment. He and his sons have seen their mother die. The son wants to take him to the village because Manish's brothers live their. We know that if he goes there Manish will not come back.

We are hoping that Manish will come for admission this morning.

Last night Binod passed stool 3 times. We had his TB sputum tests and other investigations done this morning. He is on the road to recovery.

We hope.

Wednesday, 24 August 2011

Tante Karin

Both my parents are single children. Relatives are few and far between. The cousins that they do have are many oceans away.

Mum had one very special cousin. Auntie Karin Meyer ("Tante" for us German speakers). She died on the 11th of August.

Of all of Mum's cousins - Karin was the only one who has come out to India to meet Mum.

They had a special bond.

When the allied bombs started falling steadily on German cities in WW2, many children were sent away to the relatively safer countryside. My mother was one of these children.

At the age of six she was sent to the Black Forest to be with her mother's sister in the tiny village of Arnbach - while her parents stayed on in Leipzig.

It was three long years before Mum saw her parents again. Years when the evening radio broadcasts were monitored for information on where the bombs were falling - and what the progress of the war was. Years where all the children were thin - and potato peelings carefully saved to make soup from.

During these years Mum bonded with her cousin Karin - and that bond lasted a life-time.

A month ago Mum heard that Karin was judged to have terminal cancer. She knew that Karin was suffering from cancer - but Karin did not let Mum in on what was going on in her life. When the news came Mum felt that she must go and see her.

Amazingly, a few days later, she was driven by her cousin Otto to the hospice where Karin was. Mum did not know what to expect. Would she be rejected? Would Karin be willing to talk?

It was a beautiful time.

Karin was alert and so grateful to see Mum.

They were able to talk deep. It was as if they had not been apart. At the same time - they were able to speak about Karin's death and readyness to meet Jesus.

Karin was at peace.

At their last meeting - when Mum said goodbye - she said that she would 'meet Karin again.'

Karin smiled and pointed upwards.

Last week Karin's remains were placed in a small urn and buried under a tree.

We await her resurrection.

Tuesday, 23 August 2011



Riding my creaky steed – a slow-sputtering scooter – with my daughter clutching me from behind - I putter through a cross-road at 6.50 every morning.

In the grey monsoonal dawn, the two roads are dotted with clusters of people. Before shuttered shop fronts they stand. Here a milk vendor with his plastic rain-hat is adjusting bags of milk on his bicycle. There a group of men scan the morning headlines at the newspaper-wallah’s plastic-covered table. At the corner of the crossing fifteen-odd office goers – tightly-curled umbrellas and mobiles in hand – fidget and look for an autorickshaw to take them away.

As our scooter crosses the intersection, an autorickshaw appears. The people who were studiously ignoring each other now cluster desperately around the auto – shouting hopefully at the driver that they want a ride to the station.

We are through. The odd car honks its horn while grey pigeons flutter down to be fed by early risers. We ride ahead through a shady road, past freshly uniformed children walking towards the same destination, shepherded by the odd parent.


Half an earth-spin later I return to the intersection. I am now coming out of the shady lane. It is almost 7 pm and my son in his hot rumpled uniform is sitting in front of me. We ride the same battered scooter. He wears his bright green school-bag in front. His little black helmet occasionally clatters with my red one as we are headed for home.

The small rickety shops at the crossing’s corner – which have sprung up after the latest demolition drive – are now overflowing with people. I don’t register the bicyle-repair-wallah who sits near the two banana carts, who in turn share space with two florists and a chicken shop. My eyes are focussed on the snarl of traffic just ahead of me.

The cross-roads are now a mass of metal. Bumper-to-bumper cars, and autorickshaws, with scooters and motorcycles trying to squeeze into any open space. The groans of a large bus mingle with a jangling chorus of horns. In the middle of this motorised mess a lone policeman tries to push the traffic around.

Into this crush we push. A small space opens up between a car and an auto and our black scooter darts in. To the deafening honking we add the bleet of our Honda Activa. A turn here, a twist there, and we are through. The intersection will continue to be a heaving flow of horn-blowing metal till some hour of the night, but we only have 30 meters of road ahead of us. A left turn and we are home.

Written as an exercise at the just concluded EMFI writers workshop

Monday, 22 August 2011


She met with Sheba on Friday.

We will call her Meena.

Meena found out that she has HIV 6 years ago.

She got help. Meena has been through various agencies in Mumbai and has been treated at the JJ Hospital and other hospitals. She is currently on Anti-Retroviral Therapy - the meds which have brought hope for so many by reducing viral loads.

She has been involved as an activist and volunteer with at least one HIV support group. Meena knows her HIV and is not taking it lying down.

But Meena came to meet Sheba.

Her meds are not working so well now.

Sheba examined her and talked with her.

Then the shock.

Meena told Sheba that to date Sheba was the very first doctor who had actually done a physical examination of her. The very first doctor who had touched her in the way all doctors are supposed to touch their patients. The very first doctor who had spent time finding out about who she was as a person.

Sheba's mind reeled.

25 years into the epidemic. In the big city of Mumbai with our International HIV Treatment Conferences held at the poshest of hotels. In the place where thousands of people with HIV are being treated with the Anti-Retroviral drugs - here is an HIV treatment veteran who has never been touched by a doctor.

Till now at least.

Wednesday, 10 August 2011

Hard to help

I remember when I first met him. His face was like a cloud. What goes on inside, behind the two white eyes and the inscrutable expression?

His thoughts were also hard to follow. He has HIV. He had come for help. The help that he wanted was a job. A place to stay.

He had grown up on the streets.

We will call him Harish (not his real name of course).

What his real story is only his Maker knows.

But this is what I gathered.

Harish has family. But they are terribly estranged. He has HIV. They know. They don’t want him.

Harish was working as a porter at the Churchgate railway station. Helping to load fish that came from the docks onto the trains. 7 days a week. And the additional duties too. When an accident took place, it was he and his fellow ‘hamals’ who were called to remove the dead bodies – sometimes even to pick up the pieces.

According to the pastor who sent Harish, the govt. doctor had told Harish to stop working at this job because the constant exposure to water meant he kept falling ill.

The pastor also told us that Harish was so broken by his rejection by his family that he was suicidal.

Among the stories Harish told was how he had been a petty thief and chain-snatcher before he had a change in his life. He also talked about his rejection and the hope that he had about joining his family who had gone to a village – but how bitter the parting was.

In the swirling stories he reminisced about growing up on the street and being helped by a school bus on wheels. He remembered the milk and biscuits he got from them.

Harish looked healthy. He did not seem to have any apparent weakness or sickness at this point. He said that he had not eaten much recently because he was unemployed. He said that he did not want to go back to his old ways.

We did not have a job for Harish. We talked with the pastor. We suggested another agency whose office was near where Harish was staying.

Later we found that Harish was staying in a totally different area to what we had understood him to say.

We also found out that Harish had been helped before in a residential programme – but that he did not stay put.

We had asked him to go to the other agency with a local church person. He went alone. The agency said they would try and get him a job. Everything seemed rosy.

I got a call from the pastor who had initially referred to us some weeks later. He was frustrated with the agency, saying they had promised and had not delivered. We had a long – and not entirely pleasant conversation about Harish and what should be done for him. The pastor suggested another HIV-focussed social service organisation. I didn’t think there was much hope for them looking after Harish, but I said “why not”.

This was all a number of months ago.

A fortnight ago I attended a meeting at this organization.

I was served tea by a young man dressed in a uniform with the name of the organization embroidered on it. He greeted me enthusiastically. I did not recognize him immediately – thinking he was perhaps a local trainee whom I had met sometime ago.

It was Harish.

“I wanted to come to meet you – and also meet pastor x” (he mentioned the pastor who had initially referred Harish to us).

I was thrilled to see Harish finally settled.

A few days later I called up the pastor and thanked him for what he had done for Harish.

Sadly, I just got this SMS on my mobile from the pastor. It was from the head of the organization Harish was with:

“Harish has left from here in very bad spirit again. I don’t think I will take him back again because he is always threatening to leave if things such as food and other things don’t match up to his expectations. Tried to help but he is spoiling the atmosphere here. All of us here in the organization and church are concerned for him and have tried our hardest…”

It’s hard to help.

There are a lot of romantic ideas that people have about social work. “Ooh, how noble” say some “it must be so satisfying to know that you are doing worthwhile work.” “People must be so grateful for your help” say others.

Its more often that we are faced with trying to help challenging people like Harish. The combined efforts of the pastor, us and at least two other excellent organizations have really worked to help Harish start life anew.

But the choices remain with Harish. And many like him.

Say a prayer for Harish will you? And say a prayer for the pastor, the other two organizations, and us (and who knows how many others) who are trying to help.


Photo courtesy Christa Eicher

Tuesday, 9 August 2011

New Daughter

We have a new daughter.

Well, we have a new one for a few days at least.

She is all of 5 years old.

We call her ‘Nannu.’

Nannu’s widowed mother and her older sister are at a government hospital. Her sister ‘Apu’ was born with a cleft palate. Plastic surgery was done some years ago to mend her lip, but her palate was still cleft – which meant that we could hardly understand Apu’s speech.

After working through the system (with many delays and frustrations) prayers were answered and Apu’s surgery took place a week ago at GT hospital in Mumbai. The plastic surgeon did a good job. The ward was surprisingly clean. Apu has been taken off the IV line and is taking clear liquids and moving towards solid food. Over the last few days Apu has also been phoning regularly. “You speak so nicely” said Nannu to her sister on the phone. We are then treated to a detailed description by Nannu of how much better her sister is talking.

Its wonderful to have 3 kids in the home.

Nannu is a little sprite. She is a small enthusiastic ball of energy.

She has taken to playing with Enoch’s old duplo blocks with a vengeance. The kids have been so kind to her. Enoch patiently plays with her for long stretches in the morning – and then Asha takes over for part of the afternoon. Nannu bounces up and down when Enoch returns from school at just before 7 PM. At night Nannu cuddles up to Asha as they sleep in Asha’s bed. We are mighty proud of how gentle Asha and Enoch are to their little ‘sister.’

Nannu should be with us for a few more days. We expect Apu to be discharged in a day or two from the hospital. When her mother and Apu return to Thane, Nannu will rejoin her family.

Nannu’s mother has been worshipping with us for a few years now. She has seen many hard things in her life – and continues to work through challenges. But this last year has seen a big change in her outlook and understanding. In June she took baptism and has been growing in faith. This freshness in her faith has rooted her whole outlook on life – she just seems so much more positive and ‘alive’ these days.

The church has also been faithfully looking after Nannu's mother. Looking after her during her long bouts of depression as well as when she was up. And with Apu’s surgery, we have seen that her mother’s help has not only been from our small fellowship – we are humbled to see the love of ladies from a number of other congregations who have visited Nannu’s mother and sister in the hospital and helped out in many practical ways.

Nannu mirrors some of her family history. She is almost painfully thin – her little arms are doll-like in an unpleasant way. She can cry easily – though considering the very tough knocks she has been through so far – she spends very little time crying. In fact what struck me these days is how radiant her smile is most of the time.

Nannu’s mind is as sharp as a tack. Her animated face and the constant chatter are a delight to behold. She switches topics rapidly – remembers tons – and loves to talk. Where will this girl go? What will be her destiny? Within her slight body lie the seeds of a woman who can shake the world.

What a privilege it is for us to host this little “daughter” of ours for a few days.

Monday, 8 August 2011


There is a very special happy feeling linked with clean dishes. The shimmer of stainless steel. The wet happiness of a clean tabletop. The pleasant jumble of a pile drying pots and pans. The comely hanging of assorted kitchen instruments – spotlessly dangling from their assigned hooks….

Mind you, there once had been a minor kingdom of greasy stains in the sink – a small ugly city of maculate cups and spoons, a multi-layered squatters' settlement of grimy bowls and plates, with the odd black frying pan wedged in. That evil little empire existed for a short time after one of our meals – good Mummy-cooked-food which was happily consumed by us family-wallahs around our oval table. But Grime-town is history now. We have blessed, sparkling peace restored back in the kitchen.

In my growing-up days ‘washing dishes’ was a chore. Burdensome. Not-looked-forward-to-in-the-least. Us kids were supposed to ‘learn to help’ our mother. Sunday afternoons – after the big post-church lunch (which always had lots of dishes because of the spread and the inevitable guests) it was the ‘boy’s job’ to clean the dishes. A big plastic tub of soapy hot water in one sink – another tub of hot rinsing water in the other. Between the two of us brothers - we fought (gently of course) for the right to ‘rinse n dry’ instead of doing the scrubbing of the wash.

No more.

I see increasingly larger traces of my father in me the more I press into middle age and beyond. He loves cleaning things. Just loves to scrub. To say nothing of my mother. Spick-and-span is her middle name. Throughout most of my moderately-slovenly youth cleanliness was hardly my scene. Old genes however – or perhaps we should say old memes – show up unexpectedly. Just add a new gen of Eichers and the older gen seems to revert to type.

The cleaning bug is very much in me.

Having recently moved into a new flat – one which reduced a person a dearly love to tears because of its grimy kitchen – I have many opportunities to hone my craft. Little bits of time are sequestered away – to scrub a corner here – to de-grime a set of switches there – to get out the steel wool and give a real elbow-grease rubdown of the floor over there again…

There are still areas where skirmishes are still to take place – but the battle of Eicher vs. Grime is gradually tipping the way of the former name.

Amidst the on-going campaign to scrub up our home – here is a small daily experience of partnering pleasure in the home: the pleasant 'click' of switching off the light on a clean kitchen at the end of the day. Just knowing that all the dishes are happily drying on their racks (with a further clean-n-dry group having been scooted into their places to make way for the wetties) - and that your damp shirt and tired hands have made is possible - is a small but tangible daily pleasure for yours truly.

Friday, 5 August 2011


Sheba walked in while we were singing.

I knew what that meant.

It was 9.10 AM. She would not have come with Enoch for any other reason.

The door next to us was closed.

Sheba walked in. A few moments later Sashmita - our nurse on duty came out - only to reenter the door with two bedsheets and some cotton.

I was pretty sure that Mrs. Tanya had died.

She did.

After 20 days of care at our centre. Twenty days of receiving love and support by her husband who is HIV negative. 20 days of love.

Mrs. Tanya was about to die over a year ago. She miraculously recovered and seemed pretty healthy till 3 weeks ago she suffered a sudden stroke and had a persitently high fever. It seems that she had a hidden TB which infected her brain - causing the stroke and paralysing her left side.

For the first 2 weeks she seemed to improve. A physiotherapist friend of ours came and Mrs. Tanya started to regain the use of her foot and partly her hand. She spoke a few words too.

Then 5 days ago she slipped away into semi-consciousness. We had her on oxygen and called the relatives and the church. Mrs. Tanya was a first generation believer - and the others in her prayer group rallied around her. They had hoped that she would walk out of our centre - healed. Instead - they came to her bed and spent time with her - knowing that she was most likely to wake up in heaven.

Which she did.

The funeral - on a monsoonal afternoon at the Mulund cemetary - was a testimony to God's goodness in the midst of sorrow. We don't have easy solutions - but we have a God who values each person.

Its not easy to pour yourself into a person and then have them slip away to death. But Mrs. Tanya was infinitely worth the love that was poured into her by the JSK team. Her husband - a man who tenderly looked after her throughout the ordeal - testified about how grateful he was for the care given to her.

We cannot but admit, however, that small bitter knot that death leaves us with. That yearning for something different. That gentle rage that it is not meant to be this way. And that is how it should be. Lets not have window-dressing and idle words when the cut and thrust of severance takes place.

But at the same time - we know for sure that Mrs. Tanya is with her Lord. And we know that a time will come when we meet again. No idle speculation this. No 'Pie-in-the-sky-in-the-sweet-by-and-by". The reality wrestled out on a lonely hill by a brutally beaten naked man who cried out 'my Lord, my Lord, why have you forsaken me?' before shouting 'it is finished!'