Wednesday, 29 August 2012


Summer of 1995 saw me plunge into a new world.  Manipur. 

I had visited Churachandpur once before - a flying visit with my father and brother in the winter of 1986 when Dad spoke at a revival convention in Mokokchung, Nagaland.  That being our first trip to the North East and with Dad knowing so many people - we took the opportunity to visit Meghalaya and Manipur as well.

But in 1995 it was me alone.  I was there to help SHALOM with ethnographic research on injecting drug use and HIV risk - the 2.5 months also being my fieldwork for my Masters of Public Health thesis.  

It was an amazing new world for me.  So totally unlike anything I had lived in before.

And one of my special guides was John Tusing.

The oldest son of Lalremthang Tusing - from a prominent family in the Hmar tribe - John had done his schooling at MCC in Chennai and was hired as a youth educator by the then fledgling SHALOM organisation.  

The John I knew then loved people.  He loved to talk and meet and mingle.  He was a restless bundle of energy - always wanting to do new things.

He would take me for drives in the Red Maruti Omni van of his fathers - down from the building that housed SHALOM on Rengkai road - out to one of the neighbouring villages. 

We talked long hours.  I was welcomed into the sprawling Tusing clan - and have never really left.

It was not surprising that when I joined SHALOM a year later - with my freshly minted degree as a public health professional - that I was hosted by John's parents - and shared a room with John.

John loved to laugh.  He would talk a mile-a-minute - and his large eyes in his big square head were alight in those days.

Many an evening was spent chewing the cud - or being generously fed by John's mother as the 7 months I worked with SHALOM sped by.

John, his parents and younger brother Diamond - when Mum visited me in Churchandpur with Team Kantata
The generosity that I received in this home was phenomenal.  They adopted me as one of their own.  I remember Auntie going to a local marwari to ask for parathas since the Tusing fare was rice at the first meal and rice at the evening meal too.  I remember being on the ground floor with the windows shut and the sound of gunfire from paramilitary troops going beserk in the town bazaar after scooter-borne insurgents had killed two their men.  I remember the cups of tea at 6 AM in the morning (the sun comes up at 4 AM) and the late night meetings at the local church.  I remember being honoured with a sheep on getting my degrees from university.  I had finished my studies in January of the year - but the blessed degrees only showed up in the post well past July or so.  The Tusings took the occasion to slaughter a sheep for me and call everyone (including I think at least 3 pastors to pray over me) to a feast!

I have never been back to Churachandpur - but the wonderful people that I got to know there will always be part of me.

Sadly, I lost track of John.  He quit SHALOM sometime after I left and dabbled with many things.  He got married and had kids and the next thing I knew he was in Bible School in Bangalore.   We exchanged the occasional email - and then things petered out.  

The last time I met John was in 2000.  Sheba and I were at Vellore - and we found out that he was there too.  John had come to be with his mother for her chemotherapy.  We met briefly in a lodge where they were staying.  Auntie looked tired but determined.  John had his big smile.  Auntie won her battle with cancer.  John's battles were on a different playing field.

John and family in 2008 - they were later blessed with another son
The news from the last few years was sketchy, second-hand and proved to be a muddled picture.  John always lived larger than life.  He refused to kowtow to the normal, the run of the mill.  I understood that he married and had three children.  I also heard that he made a string of questionable  decisions.  John's appetite for life was mirrored in his large physique.  His body reflected his soul.

This afternoon I got a call from Australia.  It was John's cousin Phillip with the shocking news that John had died half an hour before.

The circumstances are hazy but it seems John had suffered from various ailments - and that his body had just given out.

John was all of 36.  

By any standards his life was far too short.  By any standards the bitterness of potential unfulfilled is written all over John's time on this planet.

My heart goes out to Uncle and Auntie Remthang as they will be looking on the burial of their eldest son.  My heart aches for John's wife and children who face the rest of their days without him.  To his brothers and sister and the larger crowd of Tusings and Pudaites and other kinsfolk who now only have him as a memory. I know that our Lord has shed tears too over John's short life - and his arms of mercy are very large.  I also know that our Lord knows what it is like to lose a loved one into the arms of death - and that He himself entered that dark gate ... but that on the third day He smashed it once and for all!


Every death asks a questions of those left behind.  What about me?  

Each man's death diminishes me,
For I am involved in mankind.
Therefore, send not to know,
For whom the bell tolls.
It tolls for thee.                                      - John Donne

One of the many memories of Churachandpur is the tolling of the bell when someone dies.  I remember it as people beating on a metal bar - with each stroke being tolling a year.  Older people had longer tolling.  This was before mobiles - and was often the first way people found out who had died.

I wonder if the bell tolled today for John.  As the all-night prayer meeting and singing time - the Lengkhawm is likely to be underway - I wish I could also be there singing the sad slow songs of loss - and hope in an eternal home.   I wish I could be with the family as John's body is laid to rest.  And I wish I could hear the words of the pastor preaching about the hope of the resurrection.

Since I cannot be there 'in the flesh' in Churachandpur - I am holding a small prayer vigil at this midnight hour here in Thane.

I believe in the kingdom come
Then all the colours will bleed into one
Bleed into one
Well, yes, I'm still running

You broke the bonds and you
Broke the bonds
Loosed the chains
Loosed the chains
Carried the cross
Carried the cross
Of my shame
Of my shame
Of my shame
You know I believe it
I believe it, I believe

Sunday, 26 August 2012


We just got back from an amazing weekend camp for our Positive Friends at the Bible Centre in Pune.

Amazed at God's goodness in letting us get together with 80 very special people.  People with HIV.  Their family members.  Church volunteers.  JSK staff.  What a blessing.  It all fell into place.

Very tired, but also very happy.

Friday, 24 August 2012

For unto us a child is born

Three hours ago a little girl was born.

She weighed 1.7 kgs at birth.  A month premature, but we ever happy to welcome this child into the air-breathing world. 

She is Carla's child - and the last 48 hours were a kind of living hell for Carla and all who were helping her.

When Carla started to have labour pains she was taken to the government hospital where Carla had been registered for her delivery.  And where our staff and Carla's mother had taken her a number of times for her antenatal work.

But the doctors at Chhatrapati Shivaji Hospital in Kalwa refused to take her.  They said she was premature and they did not have an incubator.  That Carla is HIV positive played a big role.  They told her to go to the Civil Hospital - the other main government hospital in Thane.   In the middle of the night, Carla's helpers took her there - only to be told that she could not deliver there because all her papers were from the Shivaji hospital.

Carla's helpers were in a fix.  They then did what we do in India.  Went to a local politician.  Woke him up.  He came to the Shivaji hospital.  Shouted at the doctors.  Got her 'admitted.'  

But not quite.  The whole next day the hospital took revenge.  They lodged a 'complaint' against Carla.  Told her to produce the father of the child.  Carla's mother had come from Mumbai to help her in this. But the hospital authorities demanded that the father come. 

Utter madness.

In the middle of all of this our staff and Carla's helpers were trying to see that the child will be delivered.  Carla's labour pains were intermittent (mercifully).  Somehow she was finally admitted.  All of yesterday this raged.

In the middle of this episode - when two of our social workers were with the authorities - arguing Carla's case we got a call from an organisation who works to free underage girls from prostitution.  They needed a male witness from Maharashtra.  The police and female witness were ready for the raid to begin to free 2 girls.  Did we have anyone.  It was with a terrible sinking heart that I said we did not - as the very two who could have gone were fighting with the hospital authorities to get Carla properly admitted - and we just did not know how long it would take.  By God's grace the organisation were able to get someone else.  When it rains it pours.

This morning Carla finally gave birth.  At 5.30 AM.  A 'normal delivery.' The news of the little girl's birth is such a joy for us.  Its been a long, long haul for Carla. 

And for this little girl.  So many times this girl was so close to being aborted.  So many self-destructive thoughts have gone through Carla's mind.  So much rejection of mother and child from Carla's widowed mother and the few who are 'in the know' about Carla.

Will Carla decide to face the future with her little girl.  Or will she as she has said so far - give the child up for adoption and 'go back' to her home? 

Huge questions.  We have been through so much with Carla so far - and will deal with one day at a time.

Right now the baby is with Carla in the hospital.  Soon Carla and daughter will be discharged.  We expect that they will come back to the Jeevan Sahara Kendra Care Centre for at least a few days before the next steps are taken.  Pray for our nursing staff who are currently looking after a very sick HIV positive man whose fever is just not abating - possibly because of multi-drug resistant fever.

Since the child is premature we need to work hard to keep her alive.  But we believe that this girl will thrive.  And it is our fervent hope that she will not have the HIV that her mother has.  We are giving the medication daily to the child - and had switched Carla to a second-line therapy because her initial medications were not working.

Do say a prayer for this little girl will you?  And for Carla.  And for all who are working to help her.  Thanks.

Thursday, 23 August 2012

A glimpse of Bonhoeffer

I cried earlier this week.  At some ungodly hour of the morning.  And then later again.

There is much going around me to cry about.  The horrible injustice that so many of our friends with HIV face.  The grinding poverty that nudges its way into our middle-class lives - only to be pushed away.  The gut-wrenching kick of finding out another friend's marriage is on the rocks.  In fact there is too much to cry about when you stop to think about it.

But my tears were from reading.

Reading about a young German pastor who lived out a life of joy in Jesus.  And who was shot by the Nazis in the fag-end of WWII just days before the advancing allied troops overran the Flossenbuerg concentration camp he was in.

As the gestapo came to take him away to the final death camp, he told a group of fellow prisoners: "This is the end, For me the beginning of life."

There go my eyes.  Misting over.

I had long known about Dietrich Bonhoeffer.  But not really known him.

Thanks to Eric Metaxas' colossal biography Bonhoeffer: Pastor, Martyr, Prophet, Spy I have plunged deep into a world that I thought I knew at least to some extent from my excellent lessons in modern German history from my dear Herr Walter Meister.  This book has shown me just how little I know of the terrible whirlpool which was Germany's descent into Nazism and the utter madness of the war.

Bonhoeffer comes off as a modern saint - a radiant man whose intellect and deep love for his country and his fellowmen drove him time and time again to take the uncomfortable and dangerous positions of speaking up and acting out the Gospel of God.  But instead of being a haggard grey-beard, the book shows him to be what seems a virtual vortex of joy.  His love for others and his thrill of music and conversation shines through - as does seeming paradox of being a hard-minded theologian with a -sharp mind who seems to step ever deeper into an experiential understanding of his Lord Jesus.

This does not mean that Bonhoeffer is some kind of 'perfect man' straight out of a hagiography of the blessed so-and-so who never wanted to play when they were a child but preferred to spend their time in deep prayer at altar of their village church.  Hardly.

The book shows his depressions.  The disappointments that Bonhoeffer had. His failures and gradual alienation from many as the resistance to Hitler seemed to keep faltering again and again - while Hitler and the forces with him seemed to go from strength to strength.

So what is so compelling about this book.  For one the almost unbelievable fact that Bonhoeffer seems to have taken on the job of a spy - of a military intelligence officer in the Abwehr (the military intelligence wing of the German army).  The book paints this as partly an elaborate and daring cover-up of his own desire to end the Nazi regime - where he and others of the old aristocratic parts of the army worked towards a coup d'etat to remove Hitler and his cronies.  The tragedy being how rabidly successful Hitler seemed to be for much of his regime and much of the first part of WWII.  The other side of his joining the Abwehr was to save himself from being put into prison by the Gestapo for his defiance of the Nazis through the confessing church - and his running of illegal seminaries and work to try and help those few courageous pastors who were being put in prison or sent to the front.

I have always been a sucker for spy stories.  But here is one where the good guys lose.  The plot to kill Hitler failed by a whisker.  And in revenge most of the people of that group were rounded up, tortured and killed.

But the book brought me to tears because of more than this.  I think one of the reasons is the unwillingness to give into evil - though all the odds were stacked against him - and all who stood out against Hitler.

I of course have to wonder about my German grandfather - whose small size and work as a coal merchant in Leipzig meant that he was not conscripted and sent to fight against the Russians.  My mother tells me that he was a good man, who treated the prisoners of war who were conscripted to help out in the coal work with kindness, and who listened to BBC on the radio to try and find out what was happening.  But what choices did Willie Fischer make when it came down to it?  When the Aryanisation of the country racheted up step by step.  Did he like Bonhoeffer speak up for the Jews?  Or did my grandfather, like the vast majority of his country men stifle his conscience and look away?

What brought tears to my eyes was not even Bonhoeffer's decision to come back to Germany after having just 'escaped' the New York and a comfortable life ahead of him.  Though this act of obedience and submission to God's will took my breath away.

Here is what Bonhoeffer talks about death:

That life only really begins when it ends on earth, that all that is here is only the prologue before the curtain goes up - that is for young and old alike to think about.  Why are we so afraid to think about death?...  

Death is only dreadful for those who live in fear and dread of it.  Death is not wild and terrible, if only we can be still and hold fast to God's Word.  Death is not bitter, if we have not become bitter ourselves.  Death is grace, the greatest gift of grace that God gives to people who believe in Him.  Death is mild, death is sweet and gentle; it beckons to us with heavenly power, if only we realise that it is the gateway to our homeland, the tabernacle of joy, the everlasting kingdom of peace.

Who doe we know that dying is so dreadful?  Who knows whether, in our human fear and anguish we are only shivering and shuddering at the most glorious, heavenly, blessed event in the world?

Death is hell and night and cold, if it is not transformed by our faith. But that is just what is so marvelous, that we can transform death.

The passage is from a sermon preached in London some years prior to his own death.  And from all accounts Bonhoeffer stepped forward God-filled to meet his executioners.

And then another poignancy - just before he was finally arrested - Bonhoeffer gets engaged to the love of his life.  Their relationship never ends in marriage.  Despite initial hopes that Bonhoeffer would be released soon - the months of his imprisonment turn into years - and Maria and Dietrich do not become wedded as man and wife.

The 542 pages of Metaxas' book were devoured, chewed on, cried over and wondered at by yours truly.  Definitely the best book that I have read this year.  By far.  By very far. (Bible excepted of course).  Get your copy now - or come and visit us and read, borrow - but don't steal our copy.

I ended the book in tears.  Knowing that in the tragedy of Bonhoeffer's life - and the few righteous gentiles in Germany who stood up for truth - is the seed of hope.  Bonhoeffer died.  But truth did not.  And since I believe in the glorious resurrection - Bonhoeffer's obedience to Jesus has eternal value.  Which gives hope to the often confusing contours of our lives too.  

A new life

Sheba went out into the dark and the rain earlier tonight.

We had finished our family prayers - currently reading through the Psalms - and I was awaiting the two men from church who normally come every Wednesday night for a 9.30-10.30 PM prayer slot.

Sheba went to check on a very sick man with HIV who we admitted earlier in the day at Jeevan Sahara Kendra.  While she was there she got a call.

A young woman who was expecting her first child had experienced the first throes of birth pains.  Carla - as we will call her - is due in September.  But we have found that for young women with HIV who are giving birth to their first child - the kid often comes sooner.

Carla is an unwed 22 year old who has had HIV since birth.  There is a silent generation of young people with HIV.  Young people who have never had the 'shock' of finding out that they have the disease - because they have always had it.

The challenge for them is coming to terms that they actually are infected.  A month ago Carla told Sheba that she thought she did not have the disease - and that she should be retested to show that.  Sheba had in her hand recent reports that showed that Carla not only had HIV - but because she had been haphazard in her medications - the virus was at alarming levels in her blood.  Her strain of virus had become resistant to the medicines that Carla had been taking in the lax way of youth - of a person who does not believe that they have the disease.

Carla got to know a young man at the clinic where she was getting her medicines from.  The relationship blossomed, but when she became pregnant he told her to abort.  She has not told him that she is HIV positive.  The last few months have seen Carla live on the fringe.  Her widowed mother (who also has HIV) has 2 other daughters and does not want Carla back home.  The story about Carla's disappearance has been told with various fabrications.  One of them was that Carla went back to the village.  Problem is that someone went there and found no Carla.

We have been encouraging Carla and her mother to go back home and face the truth - and for one of the local churches that they are involved with to support them.  Neither wants to do it.  We cannot force.

We had sent Carla to a well-known place for women and children - but they were so afraid of her HIV that they told people not to talk with her.  We got a very sad and thin Carla back after her 2 months there.  And so we nursed her back to health at the JSK centre.

Since she refused to go back home - with her mother vigorously agreeing to this - and steering Carla's thoughts in this direction too - we had to look for alternatives.

We found one in a saintly tough woman who has a special heart for young women in distress - young women who have been living on the edge.  This social worker took Carla in - housing her in a tiny 'group house' with 3 other girls - including another HIV positive mother.

Its no bed of roses here.  But its at least a place of hope.

So when Sheba got the news that Carla's pains had started, she headed over to this room.  The pains were slight, but the baby's head is right in position - and we expect to wake up in the morning with the news of Carla's baby.

A new life.  Will this child have HIV?  We managed to persuade Carla to start on 2nd line ART treatment - which has been generously provided by a partner NGO who specializes in helping out with 2nd line ART and TB treatment.  One reason was so that the level of HIV in her blood would be as low as possible for during the final part of her pregnancy and into her delivery.

Its 1 AM now and its pouring outside.

On the other side of the city of Thane a child is being born.

A new life.

Tuesday, 21 August 2012


A young man called up asking for help two days ago.  There was a destitute man at the railway station who had been suffering from TB.  Did I know any place where he could be treated.

I gave a name or two - not having their phone numbers I suggested a website address.  Its a tragedy that in a mega-city of 16 million there are so few places that will care for the destitute.

Today the young man called again.  He said that the man was really not feeling well.  What medicine should he take.  He was sweating.  Should he give an oral rehydration solution.

I told him to bring the man to our centre.  He was brought in with the barest hint of a pulse.  Emaciated. Semi-coherent.  The only paper he had on him showed that he had taken some TB treatment from the Thane government civil hospital.  He was from out of town and didn't seem to have people around to help.  The young good samaritan had put the man in an auto-rickshaw with the help of some bystanders and brought him to us.

We could see that the man needed admission at an ICU immediately.  There was very little hope - but we referred him to the nearest hospital for emergency admission.  Giri - one of our JSK staff joined.  The hospital  refused saying that the man did not have anyone ready to take responsibility for him.  So our friend and Giri took the man back to the Civil Hospital to try and get him admitted.

The man died there.

Another unsung death.  Who does this man know.  Are his relatives wondering where he is?  Will they know about his passing away?  What happened to his family in the first place?  Did he fight with them? Has he been away from them for a long time or for a little.

Giri and Santosh (another staff who joined the group at Civil hospital), helped our young friend with the police report.  Another destitute death.  A post-mortem was performed and the body handed over to the authorities for cremation as an unknown person.

All this in the city that never sleeps.  In the place where people fly in from Africa to get surgeries done.

I feel sad and helpless tonight.  To know that a life has slipped by and we were not able to stop its merging into death.

And yet one of the glimmers of hope is the heroic behaviour of the young man whose heart went out for this destitute man.  The youngster is attending college in Mumbai.  Most of his friends are busy zoning out to their private pleasure-lands of music or are honing in on the rough-and-tumble ladder to success.  And here he is, caring for the person whom noone chose to notice.  Holding his hand, encouraging him, talking with him, praying with him.

Its the story that Jesus told of the 'good samaritan' come to life.  It doesn't have a happy ending - the man being helped died this afternoon - but it does shine some sparkles of hope into a melancholy night.

Monday, 20 August 2012

Independence Day Poem

Village in a city

After four days and nights,
the train finally spills them
into the city, these villagers
with mud inside their nails
and blood. Tucked
into crannies, crowded

quarters, they tend to floors
as they did their farms,
sweeping dust that needs
no watering. In the kitchen,
they peel and cut fruit
and vegetables, long since
cut off from the stalk.
Where once open fields
joined them to the sky
and one another, concrete,
special plates, spoons and mugs
keep them apart. Yet,
once a year, they meet up
on Independence Day,
under trees, transplants,
like themselves in Lalbagh,
spread of green amidst gray smog,
coalescing from all over the city--
to chat, eat roasted butta,
stand tall as the trees,
bare feet caressing
the red earth.

Athena is a writer who recently published a book of poetry - Crossing Black WatersMany moons ago we studied together in 5th standard at the Cathedral and John Connon School  in Bombay.

Saturday, 18 August 2012


Right.  With one fell stroke both of us have joined the ranks of those with extra eyes.

It started with Sheba's severe head-aches - and my realising about 2 weeks ago that small text was now blurred.  A quick visit to the opthalmologist at Bethany Hospital showed that we both needed reading glasses - and I also need specs for seeing at a distance.  

So on Wednesday Sheba got her reading specs and today I picked up my variable ones.  Its quite an adjustment for me.  I am less than thrilled with what seems to worse than before.  Yes I do see better when reading, but the closing in of my field of vision to a few spots of clarity seems jarring.  There is constant desire to take the things off and 'carry on without'....  Alas! I feel like I have become a card-carrying member of the middle-aged-club.

O Freunde, nicth diese Toene,
Sondern lasst uns angenehmere anstimmen
und freudenvollere!

almost the last stitch
Lets look instead at what Sheba has been working on recently.  

One of the reasons for her headaches is her work on her latest cross-stitch project - of which the majority was done through a blurry haze.  

With the coming of the specs Sheba finds herself able to read small text again.  

The current project based on a set of flower patterns sourced off the internet.  These sweet-pea flowers have been framed by Sheba with the verse 'Blessed are the pure in heart, for they will see God.'  (Mathew 5.8).

Friday, 17 August 2012


The phone rang last night.  It was one of our new interns from the Union Biblical Seminary.  He had got a phone-call from home in Manipur.  They wanted to know if he was alright.  They had seen images on TV of people from the NorthEast fleeing from Pune and Bangalore.

I have lived in the town this young man comes from.  It is not the most peaceful place on earth.  I have heard gun-shots fired between security forces and local insurgents during a terror attack - and an army rampage afterwards.

So here are people from this town calling Thane to find out if their son is safe and sound.


Because for the last month a terrible struggle has been going on between immigrant Muslims and the Bodos - a tribal group - in Assam.  Last Sunday a large group of Muslims protested this at Azad Maidan in south Mumbai.  The police was out in force as they had been requested to provide security for a peaceful protest.  But then things got out of hand.  A section of the crowd started attacking the police and the press.  Vans and busses were burned.  A baton-charge took place.  People were running here and there.  Firing took place.  Two were killed.  One had a long history of such violent agitations - and had been externed from his area a number of times by the local police.

Now here is where the tale takes off.

The Mumbai police - to its credit - managed to diffuse an explosive situation.  The two men were buried quickly and carefully with the help of local religious leaders.  The press remained fairly neutral (a certain vernacular rag of course did not - but was not able to fan the flames too much).  Prominent leaders from the Muslim community immediately distanced themselves from the actions of the rioters.

But in Pune - of all places - the next weekend people from the North East started to be singled out for beatings.  Young men who looked like they were from the north-east were attacked by mobs.  It seems that clips of alleged violence in Assam (shown to be spliced images of attacks on Tibetans and Thais) have been circulating with calls to 'rise up and fight the Chinis.' 

And this seems to have put the whole situation out of kilter.  People from the North East of India have always received the brunt of 'main-land' opinion - ranging from sheer ignorance (are you Indians or Chinese? - you must be from Nepal) to various shades of racist stereotypes.

Then the SMSes started.  In Bangalore (oops make the Bengaluru) and in Pune people started receiving SMSes saying the fresh attacks on NorthEasterners are expected.  It was too much for many.  They packed up.  And left. Hundreds and thousands of them.  Packing the airport.  Overflowing at the railway station.  As we write those packed trains are trundling towards Guwahati in Assam.

The government response?  Order another train!  And then tell people that they are safe.

It speaks a lot that rumours can spark such an exodus.   It speaks a lot of the very fragile trust that our countrymen have for the government.  We are a huge country - with massive armed forces and a long history of constitutional elections, with courts and government structures galore.  But when it comes down to trust in what the authorities say - people clearly voted with their feet.  Call it hysteria, call it fear - it shows how much work remains to build the civil society that our forefathers dreamed of.

So I talked to my friend.  We agreed that not a single incident of violence towards people from the NorthEast had taken place in Mumbai or Thane.  We decided that he and his colleague would remain with us.  We will pray and continue to serve.

Thursday, 16 August 2012

Independence Day blues... then greens

For the last 2 weeks I have been taking Enoch an hour early to school each day.  He was chosen to be part of the group to sing at the flag-raising on Independence Day - and to read out a short speech.

Yesterday it happened.  Well, actually it didn't.  At least not what was planned.

Yes, another August 15th showed up.  India has now completed 65 years of Independence from the British Raj.  We have now achieved the average age of an Indian born today (those born in 1947 only expected to live 37 years on average!).

And yes, we did get up early and go over to the school at 7 AM for the flag hoisting and programme.  Only to find that the programme had been cancelled.

Why?  Because an ex-chief minister of Maharashtra had died the day before - and the government had notified a 'day of mourning.'

That is all well and good - and no desrespects for the dear-departed - but how can you impose 'mourning' on our Independence Day celebration?  It was the oddest thing - to see kids arrive at the school dressed up beautifully in costumes for the dances and other parts of the programme then to be told that the whole programme had been cancelled.
Jai Hind!  The rousing strains of Jana Gana Mana being sung

Yes, we did hoist the flag and sing the stirring national anthem, and a patriotic song was sung by one of the choirs, but a bitter taste remained.  The whimsy of the state - that trumps the basis of our nation.  
Yes, some of the 'patriotic' themes that are trotted out every are treacly.  Yes, there are so many things that we need to address with all our heart and strength.

Yes, just singing a patriotic song will not take away the sting of poverty - or send a mars mission aloft.  But here is one time when we can genuinely stand together - and our youngsters are being taught that all of this can be set aside - in order to 'honour' a dead politician.  The cult of the person overrides the tenous threads which can weave us together.

I don't think a single child shed a tear for the departed ex-Chief minister of Maharasthra.  But I am sure tears were shed because a beautiful programme was squashed thanks to an edict from the state govt.  And for those who didn't cry - another small erosion of trust took place.

So what did we do instead?

We took our lovely lad for a walk.

Not far from where we used to stay in the 'Happy Valley Homes' is a park that the municipality has made at the edge of the national Park.  It is quite inaccessible to most people with no bus service anywhere near and far off from the main pockets of habitation - though right next to a large expensive gated community.

When it was first commissioned about five years ago it was sparkling with swings and children's jungle gym type toys.  As with much it has fallen into neglect.  Every movable out-door toy is broken - and even some of the static ones are twisted relics of what used to be so shiny.

But at least the grass and the trees regenerate.

The monsoonal green is balm to the soul.

And what can be better than seeing flowers like these?

We returned home to a celebratory breakfast (August 15 being Stefan's birthday too) with our dear friends Arvind and Putul Singh and their lovely children Urvashi and Rishav.  In keeping with the Independence Day time - we had a half-night of prayer the previous night - and Arvind and family stayed over with us and participated in a special programme for our Jeevan Sahara Kendra children later in the day.

We are grateful for our country of India - and long that our children will grow up in a land where freedom and truth will blossom. There is a lot of work... maybe even generations of work to be done.  But we can start now.  May our blues be greened!


Monday, 13 August 2012


The wonders of cyberspace.

A few weeks ago a man fed in the name of 'John V. Rao' into his computer.

Up popped our Chai Chats blog.

And so Jimmy came into our lives - again for Sheba and the first time for me.

Jimmy, Julie and Jessie David grew up with Daisy, Sheba, Sarah and Peter in Rourkela. They were part of the same church fellowship. They went to the same schools. Their lives were intertwined at many many different levels.

The younger generation of Davids went on to higher studies and moved to the US - and after the tragic death of their father in 1995 - so did Auntie David.

And that was where the story ended.  Sheba had told me about her friends a number of times - and we always wished that we could somehow get in touch again.

Well we did - with Jimmy walking in our door on Saturday!  What a joy to see him.  It was the first time for me - and for Sheba it was after 20+ years.

Jimmy is no stranger to Thane - he has passed by our town a number of times in recent years.  Each time his company sent him to their project in Pune his taxi from the airport whizzed past Thane.

But what got us connected again was the name of the senior elder of the Bethany Fellowship in Rourkela - the church that Jimmy and Sheba grew up in.  John V. Rao had married Amma and Appa - and he married Sheba and myself.  He is still alive and still soldiers away (appropriately since he is an ex-army-man) in the assembly in Rourkela - over 50 years since he helped start it as a young man.  JVR has his rough edges - some which have been on display for years - but we are grateful for his endurance and passion.

For me to see Jimmy was to see a bit more of Sheba's world.  And also to see the grace of God who has fashioned such a winsome man - happily married to Ayako from Japan - and with two lovely kids who are growing up speaking Japanese and English where the family lives in Michigan.

We are so grateful that Jimmy took the pains to follow up the emails with actually being with us.  We hope that this starts a new chapter in the wonderful story of our families long walk together.

Fastest 100 m in history

To say the Olympics have been breath-taking is an understatement.  Whatever you may feel about the hype and the bucks and the razzmatazz - the sheer thrill of seeing the best go at it makes you want to eat your hat.

Our man Bolt did what he said he would.  The final of the 100 meters saw everyone finish the race in under 10 seconds - except for the injured Asafa Powell.  Unbelievable - and at the end of the race who was in front - but our own lightning Bolt.  He may have a huge ego - but lets look at him in lego.

Bolt blazes away to glory - recreated with lego by the good folks at the Guardian.

Sunday, 12 August 2012

Masked man

I saw him sitting in the corridor of the Jeevan Sahara Kendra.  He was wearing a handkerchief around his face.  Sitting hunched over on the white chairs along the wall of the hall.

I thought he was a TB patient.  Not that most come that way - but perhaps he had been told to do so in the previous place he was treated?

Later I found he was not suffering from tuberculosis.

He was suffering from fear.

The man had come to be tested for HIV.  When asked about his name he did not give it.  His wearing the handkerchief was to hide his identity.

Giri counselled him about testing.  He wanted to be tested, but balked when it came to giving his name and address.  Giri tried to explain that we would keep this in a separate register and that his name and result would not be linked in any place.

The man refused.

After some time, seeing that we wanted to have his name, the man walked out.

Giri was not able to convince him to finish the counselling and get tested.  He said that he knew all about HIV - and just wanted the blood result.

Where is this man tonight?

Of all the people who have come for counselling, surely this man would need counselling the most.  And yet his fear and desire for a quick anonymous test has kept him from knowing what his real status is.

It may be that he goes to some private lab and does a routine test.  They will take his blood and the Rs. 300 or so they charge - and the next day give him a printout of his result.  End of story from their perspective.  Another client met. A test done.  A result given.

Surely this man has something that is terribly pressing on his mind - for him to come in a masked state and hope for a quick blood sample and then a report.  How tragic that he was not able to trust us enough to take off the mask - to let the real person he is inside show and be helped.

Friday, 10 August 2012

A life well lived

Late last week a saint slipped away.   After 83 years of life here - Uncle SK Alfred was called home.

Uncle Alfred spent the last few weeks in the hospital which he loved so much - not because he was proud of his son's enterprise in seeing the ultra-modern Bethany Hospital rise up.  Uncle Alfred loved that hospital because he loved the people.

Every morning - and I mean every morning - rain or shine - Uncle Alfred would make his way to the hospital.  For years it was 7.30 sharp when he entered and had a time of prayer with some of the staff there. Then he would start his rounds.  Going into every single room.  Talking, praying, encouraging the patients, their care-givers and the staff.

The last few years increasingly saw Uncle Alfred admitted as a patient himself.  4 years ago his heart stopped beating... then started again when he was admitted at the then Lok Hospital.   A series of health set-backs found Uncle Alfred confined to a wheel chair.  Well, confined is not the word.  He was brought in the wheel chair every morning to Bethany Hospital.  Sometimes the people he ministered to in the beds were less sick than he was.  There he was, being wheeled into different rooms - talking and praying with whoever he met.

In the last few months Uncle Alfred suffered a series of strokes and was increasingly hard to understand.  With great effort he would bring out a few words.  Most people could not catch what he was actually saying - but they saw something very clearly.  They saw his love.  They were touched by his prayers.

We loved Uncle Alfred dearly.  And he loved us.  When we first moved to Thane we were almost neighbours and our little ones (at that time) were always welcome in Uncle and Aunties home.  We would talk about his favorite scripture portions, he would ask about what progress the JSK work had taken.  Aunty would sit along with us and with her sharp insight underline something that Uncle said.  We would always end in prayer.

At Jeevan Sahara we were blessed with a memorable series of Friday morning visits where Uncle would share from scripture during the staff devotions.  He went through the full set of 'I ams' that the Lord Jesus told us:  I am the bread of life,  I am the way, I am the resurrection and the life... each one a jewel brought forward with love by a man who not only loved the scripture - he lived it - he ate it and breathed it.

Sadly those visits to our morning prayers at JSK were cut short by a serious bout of illness.

Uncle Alfred's death was entirely expected.  It was a miracle that he had lived so long.

This is what his son - Dr. Stephen Alfred - wrote about his father:

Two things stood out till he died, one his urgency to communicate the gospel and turn every opportunity to tell about his Glorious Lord, and the second was his commitment towards the local church, both very important things that kept him in good stead.

He was proud to have me as a son, but I am more proud to have him as my father, and I often pray if I could live to be even half of what he was I would be satisfied. I have learned so much from him. I remember him having refused promotion twice in the company he worked, just to have more time for the church. He was certainly no fool to give what he could not keep to gain what he could not lose.

It was moving to be at the funeral of this saint.  I found myself in tears at the prayer meeting held at Dr. Stephen's home - but those were not tears of despair - they were tears that acknowledged the reality of something very, very good.  A man who allowed himself to be used by God and now had died - old and full of years - and with no regrets.  A life well lived.

The internment at the Christian Cemetery in Mulund was a tribute to the goodness of God.  So many from so many different walks of life.  There was such a variety of people who are worshipping in different parts of the body of Christ, but whose lives had been touched in some manner by uncle Alfred.

The head of a major local denomination shared how he had been given a solid grounding in God's word while he was a student in Uncle Alfred's Sunday School class.  This man finished his tribute by saying that he was now a pastor of a church.  A young church elder told about how Uncle and Auntie Alfred had taken him into their home when he was rejected by his birth family.  A senior leader narrated about having come fresh to Bombay from his native village in Kerala, Uncle Alfred had encouraged him.  Later, when he was working in the head-office of the same company Uncle Alfred also worked with - he heard others talk about SK Alfred as 'woh bahut seedah admi hai' (he is a very upright man).  And the stories went on.

Dr. Stephen Alfred had this to say about his father:

He died not a rich man, but a man who lacked nothing.  He gave what he had for the Lord's work and the Lord did not hold back anything.

At the end of the funeral, Sam Thomas (one of Uncle Alfred's son-in-laws), stood in the middle of the crowd that surrounded the gash of earth into which the coffin was lowered.  He took a clod of earth and said the traditional words of 'ashes to ashes, dust to dust' while reminding us that we are not in gloom and hopelessness about Uncle Alfred - but rather we await the resurrection eagerly.

I took a handfull of earth and with threw it into the pit - my small salvo of soil adding to the thin layer that was already covering the flowers on the coffin.  In a few minutes the shovels would be out and the mortal remains of Uncle Alfred were covered with the mud - the same stuff that at the dawn of time was fashioned into man and had life breathed into it by God himself.

Any death is a sorrow.  As we left the cemetery, we pass crosses almost drowned in lush monsoonal grass.  We have left the orphaned body of Uncle Alfred in the right place.  Interned underground.  To return to dust and to await the mysterious call to rise again.  We left him with real hope in our hearts.

Our sorrows will be turned to joy one day.  We are already celebrating through the tears.

Tuesday, 7 August 2012


The package came in the afternoon.

From an unknown person in Hyderabad.

It was compact - but heavy.  Delivered to the door by a courier man.  Duct-taped (hint of something American - only Americans apply their silver duct-tape willy-nilly).

We knew it would have to be books.

But what kind?

Some dry directory that we had ordered and forgotten?  Some unsolicited paper-weight (literally) that would do good at the old-paper shop?

Nothing of the sort.

This is what was in the package:


Such excellent books.

Bonhoeffer: Pastor, Martyr, Prophet, Spy by Eric Metaxas is a hefty tome (almost 600 pages) which explores the life of a man who stood up against the Third Reich - and whose following of Christ has inspired so many.  You just can't control yourself with a book like this - both Sheba and I have dived in and are working our way through Bonhoeffer's childhood at this time - and rise of the Nazis.

The Monster in the Hollows is the third book of a series-in-progress - fantasy fiction by Andrew Peterson - song-writer extraordinaire - and writer of fiction that kids and their parents can enjoy reading aloud.  We read through the first two volumes - and this has now been written while we were reading the earlier two.  Its the first time I will be reading a book that was written after I read the initial ones...  But we have exercised extreme restraint on cracking this open (despite pleadings from the kids) - the unit tests for Asha and Enoch are in full swing - so we will have to wait for a holiday break to crop up somehow before we get down to finding out what Janner, Tink and Lillee are up to next.

Finally Gilead by Marilynne Robinson.  I have read this elegaic book about an aging pastor and his young wife and son - and consider it and its companion book Home as quite simply the best fiction I have read in the last 5 years at least.  Another copy of a gem like this is always, always welcome.  Our copy has already done a few rounds - so having another will only widen the circle it can roam.

So who has sent us this joy?

Our dear friends Ben and Krystal Davy of Omaha Nebraska.  Ben did a rotation with us at Jeevan Sahara Kendra in the run up to his Masters of Public Health.  His amazing mother has come out regularly to South India to volunteer with a local school in Hyderabad.  And she brought these tomes - and gave them to a local friend to post to us.

What wonderful friends to bless us with the joy of reading!  These happy volumes will remind us of Ben and Krystal for many a day...


'Excuse me sir, can you help me?'

The woman asked me in English.  I was walking briskly along the sidewalk - having just passed Asha's school and heading through a posh residential area.

The lady was grasping at the branches of a shrub that hung over a wall.  I instantly knew what she wanted.

'I can't get that flower, are you tall enough to reach it?' she asked me.

The actual flower was even smaller than this
I looked and sure enough, a tiny hibiscus bud could be seen.  A bedraggled little thing - a slip of a flower that had yet to unfurl.

'Madame' I told her in Hindi.  'If you take this, then other people cannot see it.'

'But I want to give it to God' she replied.

We both grimaced - mutually embarassed - and I moved on.

As I continued my walk my mind filled with further follow up thoughts.  'Madame, if you want to give to your god - perhaps you can buy a flower instead of plucking it from others.' This and other similar mental dialogues went on in my mind, till I stopped short.

What was I saying?

As if I never did the same.

I remembered the many times when I visit a church where an offering is taken.  What do I do?  I look into the wallet to see what 'can be given.'  Then I take the note out and fold it carefully so others don't see what I am giving.  Piety is usually not what is driving this - it is sheer cheap-fistedness towards God.

God doesn't need my offerings.  He owns everything anyway.

But He delights it when I give cheerfully.  When I realise that everything, literally everything has been given to me in the first place.  This breath of air.  That hot dosa and chutney that Sheba made for me this morning.  The refreshing shower after the walk.  The joy of a new sun rise.  The steady beat of rain during the night. And on and on and on.

And yet, when it comes to giving back, I am so miserly.  Whenever the slightest bit of 'pain' comes - I flinch and usually hold back - of if I do - it is with the sense of duty - or even worse - of 'doing something great' for God.


Oh that my heart will be changed to the lavish giver that God wants me to be.

Monday, 6 August 2012

Ahoy there!

Troubled times demand....

Lego pictures!

Enoch has just built two beautiful sailing ships - the one on the right is a pirate ship.

'You can see by the grim faces of the crew' says Enoch.

'The other one is a ship that searches the seas for pirates!'

Looks like the two ships have met each other!  Prepare to board - all men at action stations!

Thursday, 2 August 2012


A lot can happen in a day.  Or in a night.

On Sunday my good friend Vasu Vittal had a wonderful day.  An excellent message at church.  A good time with the family.  He was charged up for the week and all its challenges.  He cracked open a good book and was reading.

That was the last he remembered.

Vasu suffered a series of seizures that have turned his world upside down.

He was carried unconscious out of his home by a dear pastor friend who Vasu's wife Sheba had called to help after she found him convulsing.  They took him to a near-by hospital where he was put in casualty. Vasu was in tremendous pain and as he came to he called out about the searing pain in his arms.  He was put under heavy sedation.

The doctors then realised that he had dislocated both his shoulders - and x-rays showed a hair-line fracture on the left humerus and a splintering of the ball on the right.  Vasu had also lacerated his tongue during the seizures.

We got a call from Vasu's wife Sheba early on Monday morning - asking if the Bethany Hospital had any ICU beds.  We called up and found out that one was available - but when we called back Sheba said that they had found one in a hospital in Bandra which was closer to their first hospital.  The trip to Thane was considered too far given the injury Vasu had suffered in his arms.

Once Vasu was admitted to the ICU things started to settle.

The cause of all of this?  A brain infection by a stage of a tape-worm. The technical term is cysticercosis.  An MRI done on Vasu's brain showed a round ring which triggered the attack.  In India this disease is often spread faecal-orally through unwashed cabbage.  In other countries through undercooked meat.

I walked around in a shock when I heard what had happened to Vasu.  It just did not seem possible that this was happening to my dear friend.  Many prayers were said in our home for Vasu and Sheba - as well as their daughters Amy and Joanna (who are Asha and Enoch's age).

We then found out that Vasu was stable and in the ICU - but that the needed orthopaedic surgeries could not be done since the medication being used to dear with the cysticercosis was causing cerebral swelling and that would impair the anaesthesia.

The next thing we heard was that he was imobile and wanted to get out of the ICU, but that beds were not available.

Late this morning we got the good news that a bed was available and that he would be shifted to the 'wards.'

I went to see Vasu.

Its only now that he can talk with the lacerations of his tongue getting better.

It broke my heart to see him strapped up - immobile.  But he was so brave - and Sheba has been doing an amazing job keeping things going over this helter-skelter week that they are living.

The next steps are a discharge being planned for Saturday - and then orthopaedic surgery to screw in the ball of his right humerus.

Its not what anyone would wish.  But that's how quickly things can turn turtle.

Vasu said he has been overwhelmed by the outpouring of prayer and messages of support that he and the family have received.  Its hard to accept help - especially when you feel powerless.  Having dislocated both shoulders and having fractured both arms at once.

Sheba showed me the MRI of the brain.  As small white ring showed up in one of the images.  For some reason it reminded me of a wedding ring left on a dark-room paper.  It looked so out of place - an almost perfect circle in the flowery lettuce-imprint that a cross-section of the brain shows.

How much damage can come from small things.

I shared with Vasu what I had been reading in the morning - and which I felt spoke out to him and his family:

Do not fear, for I have redeemed you;
I have summoned you by name; you are mine.
When you pass through the waters,
I will be with you;
And when you pass through the rivers,
they will not sweep over you.
When you walk through the fire,
you will not be burned'
the flames will not set you ablaze.
For I am the LORD your God,
the Holy One of Israel, your Saviour;
I give Egypt for your ransom,
Cush and Sheba in your stead.
Since you are precious and honoured in my sight,
and because I love you.   (Isaiah 43.1b-4a)

We do go through deep valleys - we do face real dangers - our worlds can turn inside-out and upside-down just like Vasu and Sheba's world did.  But we have One who looks after us.  Who even in the worst of crises is there for us.  

I reflected on the fact that God does not promise to take away our problems - but that He promises His presence in the midst of them - and His protection from evil.  We are precious in His sight - and He loves us.  

I was reminded of what our friend Caleb Baber - a double amputee - had told us of his experience with brushing-with-death multiple times and the often frustrating road to recovery from severe injury.  Caleb said that he had been deeply imprinted with two solid thoughts - that God is sovereign - and that God is good.  Though Caleb knew that he did not understand all that was going on in his life - especially in the initial haze of the injury and fighting for life - he held on to this promise.

As I was praying with Vasu, a couple came in.  Dear friends of Vasu.  Others will be trooping up to the 7th floor to be with this amazing man and pray and comfort him and Sheba.  Hopefully Amy and Joanna will meet their Daddy soon too.  

Your prayers will speed Vasu's recovery and guide the family in the next steps that they are courageously taking.


I am home.  Panting.  Without my umbrella (make that Sheba's umbrella that I borrowed for the afternoon).

At 2.45 in the afternoon I left the JSK Centre for Bandra. There was a huge crowd on railway platform number 2.  I thought a few trains had been cancelled.  Then I remembered that it was a festival day today - Raksha Bandan - and many people were travelling.  Not the normal 3 PM smudge of people on the railway station (it never is 'empty' except when the trains don't run between 1 and 4 am).  A crowd.  A huge swelling crowd.

I managed to get onto a train to Dadar - and the switched back to Bandra without too much ado.  I visited my friend Vasu at the hospital (more about him in the next post) and then reversed my tracks.  The trains were crowded - but not the normal 'no-room-to-breath-crush' that the denizens of Mumbai have to deal with every crush-hour-morning-and-evening.

Then it happened.

I got off at Thane station, happy to have caught a fast train from Dadar and looking forward to getting home.

I started up the foot-overbridge which was chock-a-block with people.  Normal.  There was a wedge of people moving from below - pushing me and others up.  A wedge of people were coming down from above.

Then things started to get crazy.  The people from above were pushing down.  Laughing.  A few abuses were hurled.  We tried to keep going foward.  And then panic started to creep in.  The fear of being crushed suddenly loomed large.

No.  This can't be happening.  But it was. I was being pushed uncontrollably.  I was shouting stop to the people coming down. They didn't.  I started to tumble back.  I lost my chappal. Was it going to be the end?

Somehow I regained footing.  The people from above were pushing everyone down.  Somehow we managed to get down again.  I was without my chappal.  At the bottom of the stairs again I was sweaty and bruised.  The umbrella was gone.

I was alive.  The unthinkable didn't happen.  Yet.

A few minutes later I went up again.  A single line going up.  I managed to find the chappal.

I thank the Lord for His mercy in keeping me alive.  And all the others in that narrow tunnel.  So slender is the thread on which we live.  Each breath is a gift.