Monday, 31 December 2012

12 Things to be Thankful for in 2012

We are just 4 hours away from slipping into 2013.  In an hour we will meet with our house-church at Bro. Rolly's home and will spend the last bit of 2012 thanking God together with about 40 or so saints-in-progress.

There are more than 10,000 things to be thankful for in 2012, but here are 12 rather hurriedly put together ones in no particular order:

1.  An amazing time with Amma and Appa this past week in Vishakapatnam

2.  The knowledge that what the team and Sheba and I were able to do through Jeevan Sahara Kendra is written in the lives of so many people...

3.  Answered prayers.  Lots of them.

4. Asha and Enoch who continue to blossom.  As they grow into adolescence we have a wonderful set of joys in store for us (some of which we are already tasting.... I spent 2 hours yesterday and the day before exploring the binary code with Asha).

5. Books.  Bonhoeffer bio by Eric Metaxas was a stand out  this year.  We read through the Lord of the Rings as a family.  Superb.

6.  So many amazing friends and colleagues - take a bow John and Nalini, Vasu and Sheba, Jim and Leena, Jolly and Suma,  Arbind and Putul  the list just goes on and on.  Amazed to be so blessed.

7. The joys of daily life.  Taking Asha to school in the morning.  Reading a crisp new Indian Express in the morning with ginger chai.  A great meal with Sheba and the kids.   A clean rack of dishes and a sparkling kitchen counter.

8.  Goodbye scooter - hello Nano.  The Eichers moved onto the world's cheapest car - thanks to Tata genius in the year that my 5th standard classmate Cyrus Mistry took on the helm of the mighty Tata industrial empire!

9. Thirteen sun-spins of marriage over already?  Amazing - hats off to Sheba - my lover, inspirer, co-worker, provoker-to-good-deeds - remarkable woman of God.

10.  Aradhna concert.  Impossibility.  Made totally possible.  A night of sheer beauty - sound and light that still dances in my mind.

11.  Church camp.  Philip B teaching us through the joy of God's word.  Another impossibility that took shape.  Very grateful.

12.   Visitors.  We love guests.  Pradeep and Judith Ayer.  Stefan and Maria Winkler.  It was a rich time this year.

Wait there is so much else.  Mum and Dad's 7 PM calls on Monday evenings.  Asha's violin playing.  Help!

Ring in 2013.  A grateful set of Eichers thanks God for all mercies past and all that are to come!

Sunday, 30 December 2012

Making 'Murku'

So you want to make 'murku'?

So glad you asked how to do it.

‘Murku’ (or Murukku) has been enjoyed by generations of Tamilians and Andhraites (though they have a different name for it in Telegu).  When we arrived at Ammamma’s place this time she made us a fresh batch.  And on the last day we were sent back to Thane with a big bag of it.

So here is Ammamma’s secret recipe.  OK, now that its on the web its not secret anymore …
First get all your ingredients and equipment together (note – this enough to make *lots* of murku – but then who ever wanted to make just a little) :

a khardai (a heavy bottomed pan) to deep fry the murku
a bowl to mix
a ‘murku press’ (device to squeeze out the murku into the hot oil)
a stove  (obviously)

1 kg besan (chick pea flour)
¼ kg rice powder
1 handful of ‘til’ (sesame seeds)
1 tbsp 'ajwain' (carom seeds)
1 tbsp salt  (add it till you can taste it in the batter)
1 tsp baking soda
2 tbsp butter
At least 500 ml of sunflower oil – to fry it all in

1.       Mix all the above ingredients together in the bowl – keep adding water to end up with a smooth paste

2.       Leave aside for one hour.            

3.       Then heat the oil in a the khardai / deep pan 

4.       Place the paste into the ‘Murku press’ and squeeze out the strands into the hot oil.

5.       Turn over occasionally till it is light gold

6.       Remove and drain on tissue paper

7.       Repeat till all the paste has been turned into delicious goldness!

8.       Enjoy hot!  Or keep for later.  

   Munchy, crunchy murku!

Saturday, 29 December 2012

To market, to market

In an age of hypermarts - its refreshing to see that in some corners of India the good old-fashioned weekly markets still exist.

For most of the week, a largish open space in the middle of the Bharat Heavy Plates & Vessels (BHPV) residential compound is just an empty space.  But come Thursday afternoon and everything changes.

Merchants bearing their wares stream in.  Veggies.  Fruits.  Fish.  Bric-a-brac.  Its all here.

We had gone to buy shrimp.  Thatha haggled fiercely with the hard-bitten fisherwoman before the price for the shrimp was fixed and given to the lady behind her to clean for a small fee.  A handsome lot of crab was also purchased.

The shrimp that you see below on the left made it safely home where they were transformed by Ammamma into a delicious prawn biryani and a mouth-watering prawn curry.  But more on that later.

The BHPV weekly market is obviously not only about fish.

I had our new Sony cyber-shot with us.  A Christmas gift we gave ourselves.  And I just couldn't help clicking.

The photos will speak for themselves.

If in the middle of all the buying and selling and haggling and plain wandering around, you take just the tiniest fraction of interest in the vendors themselves - you quickly see just how precious each person is.  Each one in that sea of people has their own personality. In the midst of money changing hands, there are some bonds of relationship as well.

Here a vegetable vendor has a small cup of tea - and shares a laugh with a neighbour.

I was intrigued to see a man dressed in a black shirt and dhoti driving a motor cycle with bags of batteries, CFL light bulbs and what looked like old fan regulators wend his way through the fruit sellers.  Every now and then he would stop and a vendor would accept one of this man's wares.

The man's clothing show that he is a devotee of the Ayappa diety in Kerala.  His trade?

He is a light renter.

He offers a complete solution to vendors who wish to operate after sun-down.

There are no public lights on this open ground - and so he offers his battery / inverter / light bulb set on rent.

I talked to a banana seller afterwards and asked how much it cost to rent the light-battery combo.

'Rs. 30 per day'

We left well before sundown, puttering on the scooter back to Ammamma and Thatha's home in Tungalam village.

So we did not get to see the elegant lighting solution in action.

We left considerably heavier than we came - along with the prawns and crab our bag was heavy with tomatoes, radish, potatoes, onions, spinach, a papaya, bananas, and beans.

Plus three sticks of chalk for the kids to mark hop-scotch patterns on the terrace of Ammamma and Thatha's home.

Today we feasted on the prawn and crab.

Ammamma worked away today.

We had a heavy breakfast of upma and banana, potato and onion pakoras.

And then an amazing a lunch of crab curry, prawn biryani and Ammamma's amazing curried prawns.

We are being feted like kings.

Ammamma has a secret ingredient to all her food.

Its called 'love.'

Tomorrow we fly back to Thane.

We will be missing the luxuries of a semi-rural life.  But even more than the prawns and the crab, and the quaintness of their weekly market, we will be missing them.

Our week has passed by like a dream.

Friday, 28 December 2012

Love feast


Saint Paul writes "to the church of God in Corinth, to those sanctified in Christ Jesus and called to be holy, together with all those everywhere who call on the name of our Lord Jesus Christ" (1 Cor. 1.2).

This Sunday we as a family participated in one local expression of 'those everywhere who call on the name of our Lord Jesus Christ' - the local Hebron fellowship in Gajuwaka.

Each time we visit Ammamma and Thatha in Vishakapatnam we also worship at Bethany Prayer House - which they have been faithfully going to every week since they shifted here.  Over the years we have seen the simple asbestos-roofed shed gradually get more and more 'neighbours' as appartment buildings have sprouted on what used to be vacant land.

The service pattern however remains the same.  Everyone sits on straw mats on the floor.  The men on the left and the women on the right.  A single bench at the back accommodates those who are too old to sit and kneel on the floor.

After the initial singing session, there is a 'worship message' where the preacher encourages us to worship God will all our hearts.  This is then put into practice.  As every one kneels people take turns to pray out loud.  A man, then a woman, then a man and so on.  Sometimes a chorus of a song will be started and everyone joins in.  Since most of this was in Telegu, it was hard for us to follow.  But here we were, joined with people working as executives in the Vizag Steel Plant as well as with day-labourers, worshipping God together.

After the time of worship it was time for the Communion.  To prepare for this another message was preached.   Again being in Telegu I did not understand much, but since the copious Bible references were given in English I was able to follow the overall picture.

I have had the eucharist in a variety of settings - in a century old Episcopalian church in New Haven, from a Marthoma priest in Thane, with the medical Sisters in Jharkhand... in our own house-fellowships we share the bread and wine each Sunday to remember our Lord Jesus.  Here was another expression of the universal body.  I raised my hand and the thick sweet chappati (unleavened bread) was brought to me, followed by a sip of sweet grape juice from a common cup.

Kyrie elaison 

Normally after the communion another message will be shared.  But on the Sunday we attended it was time for the Sunday School children to have a special programme.

The kids from the church were brought to the front and shared with us what they had learned during the year.

Songs were sung.

Some in Telegu.

Others in English.

Then each child came up and told something that they had memorised.

Bible verses were the most common - but there were also recitations of all the books of the Bible and the Ten Commandments.

One of the boys told the names of the disciples.  I was reminded of Tom Sawyers infamous Sunday School recitation when he was asked to name 2 disciples and after a long hesitation he blurted out 'David and Goliath.'

No such problems for the little ones at the Bethany Prayer House.

They were quick to say their verses.

Each greeted the congregation with a 'Praise the Lord to all' and then launched into their recitation.

At the end one of the guests was called to give his contribution.

Enoch got up and said that he was going to tell Psalm 103 "verse 1 till whatever I can remember" (to the appreciative laughter).  He then proceeded to tell the whole Psalm by heart.

Near the end of the Sunday School programme prizes were distributed to the different students.  Each child got at least something.

The little girl on the right is one of the special needs children from the congregation.

Over the years we have seen a number of kids who have developmental challenges.

Just before the end of the Sunday School programme we saw the sign that this congregation is not heaven yet.  One of the bigger boys had somehow been overlooked in the memory verse recitation.  His mother angrily asked why they were being ignored.

The boy was brought forward and he said his bit before the 'vote of thanks' was given.

Nothing new.  The very earliest church struggled with divisions, with St. Paul writing to the Corinthian church about this problem.  He said that he had heard that there were quarrels among them and writes: "I appeal to you, brothers, in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, that all of you agree with one another so that there may be no divisions among you and that you may be perfectly united in mind and thought" (1 Cor. 1.10)

As anyone who is part and parcel of any local church knows 'Saints above are full of glory, Saint below, that's a different story.'  We have so much work to do to accept and bear with each other - and at the same time to genuinely see changes in each other.  Its a life-long process.

With the service over it was time for the 'love feast.'  The straw mats were rolled up and narrow mats put in their place.  The smells of big pots of rice and sambhar being cooked had wafted in during the 4 hours of the church service.  Now it was time to eat.

The brothers came by with stainless steel buckets of rice and mutton curry, followed up by sambhar and curd.  Everyone was served the food.  Grace was said and then all ate together (other than the servers of course).

Someone said that the 1st century church never had a meeting without there being eating.

Over the years we see an echo of this 1st century Christ-following in the life of the Bethany Prayer House.  We have eaten many a meal together after the service.  The sambhar was out of this world.  Blessed food with God's blessed people.

Enoch has shown that he can make friends in a flash.

Even if he doesn't fully understand the language.

Who knows when we will next meet with these dear people.

But till then we will have happy memories of another memorable day with them.

God be with you till we meet again, 
Let His rod and staff uphold you
In His loving arms enfold you,
God be with you till we meet again...

Wednesday, 26 December 2012

To the sea!

The call of the sea is pretty strong for the Eichers.  Especially the youngest generation.  Having crossed all the way over to the East coast of our dear nation of India - we have to take advantage of a dip in the Bay of Bengal.

And so today we made a pilgrimmage to the beach.  To Yeradda beach outside Vishakapatnam.

The day was warm.  Not a cloud in the blue sky.  The sea water refreshingly cool.  Its boxing day!

There is of course serious work to be done.

Sand castles have to be built for one.

I mean, we can't just spend all our time frolicking in the waves can we?

We were well equipped this time - having raided Ammamma's kitchen for most of her plastic utensils - with the solemn promise that they would be well washed and brought back into spotless condition.  Those plastic bowls were sure put to use.  Moats were dug.  Castle walls made.  A bridge dug under the entrance.  The end result was a castle fit for a king.  At least a small sand king that is.

A lot of work has to be done.

Its good that we had two happy workman on hand.

And what fun to build and build.

To see something emerge out of sand.

And then at the end there is something to see.

A finished product.

And a proud builder.

But as grand as you make it - you always know one thing about sand-castles.

The sea will come in and take it away.  Sooner or later.

The same sea that destroys the grandest of sand-castles is also the one into whose waves we can run for a refreshing dip.

Yerrada beach is said to be a dangerous place - though we did not see any signs telling us that.  The waves were great fun.  A large sand-bar meant that most of the way into the water I was only at waist level. 

Even now, back home at Ammamma and Thatha's place in Tungalam village I can still feel the waves.  The feel of the sand in my toes.  The sound of the water tumbling over itself

What is it about the sea that draws us like a magnet?

Is it the awesome sight of a horizon that stretches out ahead of us?

Is it the romance of knowing that the waves could have come from the other side of the planet?

Or is it the sheer beauty of sun on surf - the never ending change of white foam crashing in - being gathered up into green waves - and then coming in again.

We were not alone at the beach - of course.  There were plenty of other revellers - some on the rowdy side - others walking primly along the strand.

After we had played ourselves out we retired to the pavillion.  For lunch of course!

Ammamma had stocked us up with her famous lemon rice and egg curry.  Add chips to the mix and some sprite and finish it off with some banana-coconut cake and you have a perfect picnic.

There was just one more session to be held.

We ended a lovely time with more swimming, more digging - and some kite-flying too!

Tuesday, 25 December 2012


Each year we gather to say thank you.

It started in 2002.  We were maybe 15 max. 

4 or 5 families who were affected by HIV.  Gathered in a local church to say 'Thank you" to God for having lived through another year.

Each year we have added more people.  More JSK staff.  More church volunteers.  More people who are living longer.   We had over 375 this year.

                JSK staff met people with HIV in their homes in the weeks before the Thanksgiving time and asked them to   write 1 thing they are thankful for on a star - we then displayed all the 'thankyou stars' at the programme
We have lost a number of people over this past year to AIDS.  But the vast majority of our friends who were alive with HIV at the end of 2011 are still alive at the end of 2012.  And for this we are very thankful.

Each person who came is very special.  Each person - whether they are HIV positive, a family member of a person living with HIV, a church volunteer or one of the many people associated with JSK in some way - each person has a story to tell.

How amazing to have a God who cares for the broken and the left out.

As the meeting got underway I couldn't help but think how crazy a meeting it was.  To bring such a number of people together who are hidden from the eyes of society, and to celebrate outside in the open.  The loudspeakers would definitely carry over to the swank appartments next door.  If the residents of the Rs. 80-90 lakh homes would open their windows and turn down their plasma TVs, they would have heard some amazing stories.

But before the stories began there were other things to do.

To sing for one. 

From the heart.  We were blessed to have the Marthoma Church Thane youth and choir join us for the special day.  They poured their heart into the songs - and we could all feel the love.

Everyone joined in.

The JSK Thanksgiving time was a time for everyone to be thankful.  We had special times for the adults - but also for the kids - and for the first time we had a seperate session for adolescents as well.

We are always thrilled when we see families come together.

In so many ways HIV is a sad reminder of how broken our relationships are.  So to see people come with kids gives us all such hope.

Just looking at the happy faces reminds us too about how valuable the work of our JSK staff is - and how precious the often unseen caring hands of members of various local churches are.

We had plenty of church volunteers at hand for the programme.  Almost 70 folks - counting the Marthoma choir and our own JSK staff were on hand.

And work they did.

Well before the programme started, we had meeting after meeting to plan and prepare.  We packed a gift hamper for each.  Generous gifts by individuals and local churches made this possible for us.  Food was ordered.  The set up was arranged.

And on the 15th of December a hive of activity descended on the JSK Centre.  The stage was set up.  Carpets laid.  Balloons hung up.  The banners put up. 

As the guests started arriving each person swung into action.  Our dear Positive Friends and their family members were welcomed and ushered to their places.  Over the course of the evening food arrived and was put onto plates.  Tea was served to the masses.  After the programme the snacks and another round of tea was served.  The gift hampers were given to local church volunteers who were then brought to each family to share it with them and pray with them.

For me this year's Thanksgiving time was summed up by one of our Positive Friends.  We will call him Harish.  Harish came in touch with us this year.  He is the sole bread-winner in his family and found out that he was HIV positive a few years ago.  This year he came in contact with a church just outside Thane who knows us well.  Since Harish was just not getting better, they brought him to us for care.  We admitted him for 2 weeks and he improved some.  Then he came back again.  We found out that the tuberculosis which seemed to respond initially was in fact multi-drug resistant TB.

It was hard for Harish and his family to deal with this.  But deal with it they did.  They stuck to the medication, and we were able to source the 18 month course free from another agency which helps people with HIV and TB.

Harish came to the programme.  He could not sit the whole time.  But he made sure he came.  As I saw him being cared for by his wife I wanted to cry.  This precious man and his loving wife - and the extended family - both their biological family as well as their new family in the church - who are looking after them have done such an amazing work over this year.  Who will know what happened?  Only they and the loving God who has helped them through some very dark times this year.

So much to be thankful for!

And this at the end of the day is the main focus of the time that we have each year.  Speaking out what God has done in lives.

And so as the night fell we heard story after story.  Some eloquent.  Some abrupt.  Some guarded.  Some no-holds-barred.  People telling what they are going through.  And how they are making steps forward.  And how God is helping.


Moulding minds

In a small sleepy village, you learn a lot by looking.  You learn by going up on the terrace of the house and observing.  By peering out of the gates and seeing what takes place on the road.

One thing is clear.  Everyone values education.  And they will do whatever it takes to get schooled.  The road outside Amma and Appa’s home sees hardly a vehicle pass – other than the odd motorcycle.  But the one vehicle that does pass the gate regularly is a yellow school bus.  Regularly.

On the morning of Christmas eve, a look out the gate showed a group of kids on bicycles, having a good time:

 But we also saw plenty of kids going to school -  or tuition.

Its not enough to go to classes in the school - either the government or private schools.  Almost every child also is enrolled in group coaching classes that take place after (or before) school.  
As I watched the procession of kids walk by I saw a small group of boys stop.  One of them opened his school bag.   With his two friends they took out some eatables  - it looked like puffed rice – and happily dug into it. Going to school has its small joys.  Friends and food are always welcome.

Our own boy is very much on holiday.  Other than a small set of worksheets that his school sent us by email (!) Enoch is busy reading, playing, and exploring his Ammamma and Thatha's home - and yes there is also time to watch the odd India-England T20 cricket match ... and yes any movie DVD that his parents allow him.

It looks like Enoch is very much a minority.

At the love feast after church on Sunday I sat between two young men.  The young man on my right was a visitor whose uncle lives in town.  He works as a government teacher in a tribal area of Andhra Pradesh – 170 kms away from here.  He is grateful that he can teach in Telegu medium – and his students come from various tribal communities.  The young man on my left is a local boy.  He has finished his engineering studies and is seeking a job.  In the meantime he is teaching at a coaching institute.  And runs tuitions at home as well.  I asked him if he had an email id.  He said he did not have time for it. 

Lets take a look and see what we can spy from the roof of Ammamma and Thatha's house.

Join Enoch as he goes up the steps.

Tuitions are a huge industry. 

From the roof you just have to cast your glance to a neighbouring house to see a group industriously being tutored on a terrace:
The roof space has been divided up into different spaces for teaching.  Classes are held for various age groups.  Teaching takes place in the morning:

And late into the night:

The wheels of progress are greased by education.

But how much is really being learned?  How much of all of this is the 'Johnny, Johnny yes Papa' kind of teaching where bunches of students are made to repeat nonsense bits of information so that they can 'pass' their exams, and carry on into the next level of their 'studies.'

When I think of how blessed I have been with the amazing teachers that I was given all through my years of learning I want to cry.  Hats off to each one who gave me so much more than these kids are getting.  

But at the same time, hats off to the parents of these children who are at least trying with whatever they have available to see their kids live a better life than they did.

Would that the kids would learn something in the process though....