Saturday, 16 February 2013


At the edges of shining India are the large shanty towns of sludge where untold thousands drift in and out of.

Over time some of these waste-lands end up with certain amenities and the hunger for land and veniality of various levels of power-brokers end up 'developing' these areas into defacto living spaces.

I wish we did not have to talk about these places.  O Freunde, nicht diese Toene, sondern angenehmere...  But though they are banished to the periphery of many a middle and upper class Indian - they very much still exist.  

And the people who live in these hellish spots are very much people.

Earlier this month a local church in Airoli organised an HIV testing and counselling camp in one such place.  We will not name the church or the area - as they could be any place on the margins.

But walk with the JSK team as they move in for an unforgettable day.

This is a church which has a number of cell groups in some of the most challenging communities.  Places where crime and poverty overlap - but also where hope is born.  Most of the church members are from such areas themselves and have seen radical changes in their lives.  Parents healed.  Freedom from alcohol addiction.  A new hope in life.  A freedom from sin.  A rejoicing in the person of Jesus.  The cell group leaders are mostly young and give a major portion of their time outside of work to the church.  Two of them have been trained in simple HIV care and have started reaching out to people with HIV in their areas in addition to their organising of prayer times and Bible studies.  The church has begun supporting these two with a very modest faith-based stipend.  The bulk of the church work continues to be voluntary - ordinary people giving of their time - with joy.

Our team was brought to a shack.  Cleaned up, with bright red screens on the outside.   The local people had been told about the HIV counselling and testing camp.  Young church volunteers went door to door reminding people.  We set up a desk outside to register those who wanted to get tested.  When asking for addresses some of the responses were almost comically vague - 'next to the flag' said some.  We are dealing with people whose whole identity is the shifting temporary tarpaulins, bamboo poles and the occasional metal sheet.

Inside the shack the church people have curtained off cubicles for counselling and a space for blood to be taken.

The people start coming.  Young men.  Younger women.  People of all faiths.  Widows. People who have never seen the inside of a hospital.  Some dishevelled.  Some dressed immaculately despite the rotten surroundings.  Some with harrowing tales.  Many women just cried.  No one had ever heard their stories before.  Our counsellors focussed on the HIV issues - but life and the miseries of many intruded.

Sunita, a volunteer nurse who works at Bethany Hospital joined us for the day.  After the counsellors had talked with the person and got a voluntary consent to do the test, the volunteers took the person to Sunita who carefully took the blood samples.        

Some people told her anxiously not to take too much blood.   Not everyone who initially registered ended up giving a blood sample.   A few opted out after they had received the counselling.   We registered over 160 people.  A total of 136 ended up giving their blood to be tested for HIV.
The vials were taken back that evening to Jeevan Sahara for testing.  Our part time lab tech came in and worked hard and carefully to make sure each sample was correctly tested.

We ended up with 3 samples testing positive for HIV.  3 people.  All women.

On Monday afternoon our counsellors returned.   Giri - one our main counsellors had lost his father the morning after the camp - and had gone back to his village in Orissa.  Sheba stepped in and walked through the dust bowl to the counselling hut.

What stories she heard.  The women could not stop crying.  Just to have someone listen to them was a blessing.  The cruelty that so many live in is unbelievable.  Alcoholic husbands.  Beatings.  Loneliness.  By God's grace most of them were negative.  A small mercy.

Near the end of the time the three women had still not come.  The church volunteers tracked them down and Sheba counselled them.  One woman knew about her status and has even been taking ART medication.   The other two took it hard.  One is an elderly lady.  The other is a widow.  They now know they have HIV.  But at least they are not alone.  The church volunteers commit to bring them to JSK and to follow up locally.

In the midst of all of this Sheba meets an old friend.  Shalini (names changed of course) had attended an HIV positive friends retreat with us last year.  We as a family had been paired with Shalini and her husband Arun and their 4 kids.  It was just a two-day camp, but we were so blessed to get to know them.

And now Shalini stood there, beaming.  'You have come to my village' she told Sheba, 'you must come to my house.'  Sheba did.  They came to a large shack.  It had been demolished more than 6 times already.  This family has no alternative.  Shalini was crying.  Joy and sadness at once.  Sheba sat with her and talked and prayed.

As a family, Shalini and Arun have come a long way from their native district of Bhagalpur in Bihar.  They have continued to be at the margins of society and are both HIV positive to boot.  But a change took place when Shalini started going to a local prayer meeting.  Though her economic situation is still dire, her relationship with Arun improved dramatically.  Arun works on Sundays and so does not normally make it to the prayers, but has stopped drinking and now brings his salary straight back and puts it in Shalini's hand.

To see them was a bitter sweet surprise.  Sweet as even in a hell-hole are people who we know.   Bitter as we continue to live in such luxury while others continue to be in such misery.

Would that our 2 kids and their 4 kids grow up in a time when such shanty-towns are just a memory.   Judging by what we see, however, it looks like the margins are going to be with us for quite some time yet.

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