Sunday, 31 January 2016

Drought and Famine - then and now...

I am reading about famine.  Seated in a comfortable push back chair in the Bhopal-New Delhi Shatabadi express.  Having been served coffee and snacks… and knowing that a chicken dinner and ice cream to top it off is on its way in an hour or two.

The train is currently stopped in Jhansi.  Chinese tourists have just boarded and are watching a movie in Chinese on their tablet.  Other passengers are sleeping or tapping away on laptops (like me) or swiping their smart phones.  An young Indian man talks with the ladies in fluent Chinese.  I ask him later how he knows the language and he said he did an advanced diploma in Chinese from Delhi University.

The book I am reading is a digitized copy of “A Narrative of the Drought and Famine which prevailed in the North West provinces during the years  of 1868, 1869 and the beginning of 1870.”

I am still a bit of a romantic I guess, still a bit old-fashioned perhaps, so reading something digital for me is still a bit off-putting and vaguely plastic.  But the good folks at Google who have digitized this (thank you dear ones!) have truly scanned the pages, and so I came across two stamps showing where this book had been. 

Firstly there is on an inside blank page this stamp.

I don’t think I will ever get to the “Indian Institute” at Oxford University, but digitally at least I have touched a book that was housed in their library.

The second stamp comes on the first page of the text.  It is more mundane, but also more specific.  

The book was published by the British Raj government in 1871.  It had clearly entered some kind of govt. library or document repository that year.

Why am I interested in reading about famines which took place 150 years ago?  Well, because Lalitpur, where we are in the process of shifting to, is in this very area and the whole Bundelkhand  experienced less rainfall than expected last year.

The very first task I had, on the very first day of joining the Harriet Benson Memorial Hospital was to listen in on a meeting which Thomas John who helps out with the climate change programmes for Emmanuel Hospital Association had with our HBM Hospital Community Health and Development Team here.   He had come to check out the modalities of the ‘Cash-for-Work” programme that our team was doing in the watershed management progamme.  He had found that the proper procedures had not been followed.  So my first task was to agree with him and have our staff go back into the field, and redo what had not been done.

So let us go back to the basics of famine.   Reading a 150 year old book is quite enlightening.

The author – a certain Fredrick Henvey – was an ICS man who was tasked with documenting what had happened during the famine years and understanding what the British govt. in India had done about it – and what the results were of these actions.

He starts out his tome by mentioning the two causes of famine. 

The obvious one is the deficiency of rain which means that crops sown in rain-fed agriculture systems fail.  This can be exacerbated by ‘false hopes’ when it seems that a deficiency is over, and farmers happily start sowing only to find their plans ruined with the rain deficit kicks in again.   Perversely, sometimes the farmers lose their hopes for a good harvest when unseasonal rain damages standing crops.

The second reason has to do with prices.  Henvey points out that “there are large and, it is believed, increasing numbers of people who are dependent for a livelihood on daily wages, and liable to be thrown out of employ as the pressure of high prices grows.”  

Henvey goes on to say “The tendency of famines is to bring the prices of all food, whether coarse of fine, to a commonly high level, and it will therefore be readily understood that, when wheat is selling at 8 seers, or 16 lbs., for a rupee, a man who earns a rupee once a fortnight must be hard pushed for a living.”   

We will translate this into metric units.  Henvey had earlier said that in years of plenty, at times a single rupee could by 80 seers (or 160 lbs.) of coarse grain.  That would work out to 1 rupee buying something like 72 kgs of grain.  So if as a labourer you earn 2 rupees a month you could be purchasing at least a quintal and a half of grain (of course there would be other expenses, but for a labourer it would be enough to live on).   However, in times of famine, the price of grains shoots up, so that instead of 72 kgs of coarse grain to the rupee you are now only able to get 7 odd kgs of grain.  The cheaper varieties have disappeared from the market long ago.  Prices of food have shot up 10 times what they were during seasons of surplus.  Staying alive becomes a lot harder.  Starvation looms large.

But here is the kicker.  As Henvey brings it out clearly:

“Nor is this all.  When prices rise to famine height, the employers of labour contract their expenditure and discharge workpeople, whom they can no longer afford to support.  Thus the weavers, chumars (i.e. leather workers), village artizans, and field-labourers are deprived of employment.   Not only is bread dear, but there is no money to buy bread.  It is a family of labour rather than of food.”

What happened in 1869 was that the previous year 1868 had already seen drought – and in 1869 the rainfall deficit widened to encompass a major portion of the North West Provinces.   Migration was futile, because work could not be found in any place.  And since the Bundelkhand did not have any irrigation worth speaking of at the time, the epicenter of famine took place there.

The writer points out that there had been 3 previous famines in the 1800s already.  In 1803 (when hailstorms, scanty monsoons and failure of winter rain lead to a famine), in 1837-38 (when the culmination of 5 years of poor rains lead to 800,000 lives being lost) and in the same decade the entire failure of the monsoon caused a famine in the year of 1860-61.

It is fascinating to read about our own Lalitpur district;
Henvey clearly sees the district as hardly being worth its salt.  With only 1/5th of the area cultivated, the district has poor soils and few wells and tanks (dug out water-retention ponds).

Ironically, today it is said that Lalitpur has the highest number of dams per district for the entire mega-state of Uttar Pradesh.   But the ground level issues that Henvey talked about 150 years ago still has resonance.

Lalitpur in 1868 saw far less than hoped for rain after June, a false hope when some rain fell in August, only to stop again and basically ruin the Kharif (monsoon) crop.  Then a bit of rain fell in December, but the Rabi (spring crop was poor) leading to even rich land-lords being willing to work for bread and the poor being pushed into terrible distress… and then the next year being even worse with no money to sow seeds, few animals left to plough the fields and many having died.  And then the terrible onslaught of cholera in Lalitpur as the abundant rains fell during July 1869.

[It is horribly ironic that after writing the above paragraph, I have been served a delicious chicken curry meal, with curd and a mixed rajma dal.  I am part of the privileged few, those who are able to travel and eat with God-like freedom.  The recipient of grace upon grace.]

How many died in Lalitpur during those dark days?   The writer notes that 500 were officially notified to have died of starvation, but points out that epidemic diseases did their terrible damage and so the true number of starvation related deaths will be higher.  Here is his summary of the mortality from those crucial years.

The population of Lalitpur district was 2.5 lakhs 150 years ago (it was 12 lakhs in 2011).  But almost 12,000 died in 1869, which was 4.7% of the population of the time.    And cattle died too.  According to the government reports, 95,543 head of cattle died that year (41%). “The stench arising from  thousands of carcasses polluted the air, and contributed to the outbreak of cholera, which was the last plague that visited the district.”

Strikingly, the government of the time seems to have done quite a bit to alleviate the sufferings, with poor houses being opened for those too weak to work, and large scale public works being done so that labourers could work for food.   Some of the works done were later found to be expensive for the quality of work done, and given the feeble condition of many of the workers, this is not surprising. 

What do we have different today?

We are in a situation where there is a deficiency of rain for the past year.  Will people migrate and leave their fields?

Our community health and development team has been working for the past 2 years with a watershed management programme in the Bar block of Lalitpur district.   It’s stated aim is to help vulnerable communities be able to remain in the village and not migrate and thus put themselves at risk of being trafficked.

Over the course of the last few months our staff found that the situation in the villages has meant that some are leaving to try and work in other places.

This issue was found across the Bundelkhand area.  The western UP and western MP regions recorded ‘scanty’ rainfall for the October and the first half of November last year.  Rainfall was 80% less than normal for western UP (of which Lalitpur is part of) and 72% less than normal in western MP.

Our colleagues in EHA and EFICOR swung into action and did a rapid needs assessment of the Bundelkhand area and found that the drought conditions are actually causing people to leave the land in search of work in other places.

And so based out of this assessment, they suggested the ‘cash-for-work’ scheme.  Given the drought situation, our normal watershed management activities of doing treatments to the land to improve water retention and combat erosion etc. should be strengthened by an additional component – a special fund to target the most vulnerable and allow them to get cash for work.  The idea being that if they are able to get work in their own village, that they will not need to leave and get work elsewhere. 

Based on this finding, our main funding partner very graciously allowed us the reposition our programme to address this need – and so we have implemented a cash-for-work component into our watershed management work in the Bar block of Lalitpur.

So I find myself trying to understand the situation of today.  How much drought is there really there?  On the hospital campus we see so many trees and greenery, it is hard to imagine that there has been any deficit of water.  But our staff tell us that the challenges that the vulnerable, especially landless labourers are facing are real.   And so we are in the business of helping out the villages that we are working with work through their village watershed management committees and identify those who are at risk – and help by offering a specific number of days of work.  

And what will happen from now on out?  Are we looking at a repeat of the terrible years of 1868 and 1869 when a deficient year was followed by a total disaster?  How should be plan for all of this?

Being only 11 days into my new task as the Director of the Community Health and Development programme of HBM Hospital in Lalitpur, I am very early in understanding all of these things. 

The questions that crowd my mind are about how effective is this work?  How sustainable?  How well are our village watershed committees making decisions?  What is the role of our staff… and the money that we are able to bring to the table?  How much should we push for our villagers to use the government MNREGA programme (a minimum rural employment generation act) – even though the field reality is that it is usually ‘bought out’ by the local corrupt(able) powers and even when given the payments sometimes only come 7 months after the work was done!

In addition, just this week my email delivered me with the ‘preliminary results’ of a mid-term evaluation of our work (and 3 other similar programmes in the Bundelkhand region) – the data for which was collected from our project late last year.   The report is dauntingly complex, feeding back the findings of a 7 person evaluation team – I have 30 plus pages of small text to work through… and I am to use these findings to redesign our work to reflect the learnings of the evaluation! 

It is now 10.16 PM and my train is just easing into Mathura junction.  This dear Bhopal-New Delhi Shatabadi (I think I will be getting to know this quite well in the future) is taking me to Delhi where I am due to spend the next few days hunkered down over this self-same computer, helping to design the coming year’s action plan for our Watershed Management work.  Our community health and development leaders of EHA have invited us all together for a hands-on proposal writing workshop.   Joining me is our HBM Hospital CHDP project manager Lukash Prakash (whom I had the privilege of working with many years back in Jharkhand) and our colleagues from other EHA community health projects, who will also be working on their programme proposals.

Much prayer is needed for the next few days.

Oh, that we will find real answers to drought-exacerbated hunger.  And that we will never walk through the valley of famine again.

Thursday, 28 January 2016

Unearthing some of Lalitpur’s History…

Last night we had a prayer meeting at the Bacon Bungalow.  It was Republic Day so we spent time – a small group of 20 odd folks – praying for our nation and for our district.

The Bacon Bungalow has been wonderfully renovated thanks the path-breaking rural Palliative Care programme that Harriet Benson Memorial Hospital has developed over the past five years.  Today the hospital runs a nationally recognized Palliative Care course out of this building, and this afternoon Dr. Ann Thyle and Sister Leela Pradhan used the same room to share with us a potential scaled-up programme which would include 13 EHA hospitals in Palliative Care over the next 5 years.

I had been wondering about the Bacon Bungalow.  It was named after Mrs. Elizabeth Mercy Bacon who came to India as a widow in 1890 and purchased it that year when she established the Reformed Episcopal mission work in Lalitpur.  But who did she buy it from?  No one seems to know. 

Many of the early missionaries did not last long in India.  Mrs. Elizabeth Mercy Bacon was added to that number. 10 years after she arrived in India, on the 4th of Sept. 1900 she died of cholera in Lalitpur.  Her grave is still there in the small Christian cemetery in Lalitpur town.

(Pic courtesy Yohan Malche)

The Bacon Bungalow is clearly a British colonial structure – the inside reminds me of my early boyhood when we occasionally went to the Alliance Mission bungalow in Akola.  My grand-parents had lived there occasionally as the Christian and Missionary Alliance kept moving its missionaries about every 3 years so that they would ‘not build up their own empires.  However, since they retired and went to the US in 1972, my visits to the mission bungalow was to be with our ‘adopted grandparents’ – Uncle Gerald and Aunty Sarah Carner.  I well remember the long dining room table and the cloth napkins we were each assigned, and the brass bell to summon us to dinner and the cook bringing in pigeon squabs for our khana.  And cold oranges for breakfast.  And the clean gravel in the driveway.

Lalitpur was clearly an important colonial town, and Mrs. Bacon had bought her house from folks of means who lived in the civil lines.  On my initial trips through Lalitpur I was told that some of the ‘empty land’ belongs to the military.  And yet I do not know of any active army base in the vicinity.

How to find out about the past?  Well, since I cannot go to India house in London, I decided to start with the internet.  Google ‘Lalitpur’ and most of what you get are articles about the city and district in Nepal.  Bless them of course but I want to know about the Lalitpur here in the Bundelkhand area, and currently part of Uttar Pradesh.

A few days ago I found an Imperial Gazeteer which had a short and pithy history of Lalitpur – published in 1909-10.

Are you itching to read a bit about Lalitpur’s past?  Here goes:

Lalitpur Town.  Population (1901) 11,560.  Tradition ascribes the founding of the town to Lalita, wife a Raja Sumer Singh, who came from the Deccan. It was taken from the Gonds early in the sixteenth century by Govind Bundela and his son, Rudra Pratap.  A hundred years later it was included in the Bundela State of Chanderi.  About 1800 an indecisive battle was fought close by between the Bundelas and Marathas; and in 1812 it became the head-quarters of Colonel Baptiste, who was appointed by Sindhia to manage Chanderi.  On formation of a British District of Chanderi in 1844, Lalitpur became the head-quarters, and it remained the capital of the District, to which it gave its name in 1861 up to1891, when Lalitpur and Jhansi Districts were united.

Another part of the internet took me to Col. Jean Baptiste Filose who seems to have been one of the white Mughals – soldiers of fortune who sold their services to various Maharajahs.  Baptiste is said to have given the princely sum of Rs. 1 lakh to set up a school in Agra – which continues to this day as St. Peter’s school.

You almost wonder – would it be too romantic to imagine that the Bacon building was once owned by Baptiste himself?

The story continues:

The story of the Mutiny in Lalitpur has been narrated in the History of Jhansi District.  The town contains a number of Hindu and Jain temples, some of which are very picturesque.  A small building, open on three sides save for a balustrade and supported on finely-carved columns, obviously derived from a Chandel building, bears and inscription of Firoz Shah Tughlak, dated 1358. 

So we have the answer to why so much land seems to be military.  Lalitpur was one of the key places for the 1857 uprising against the British.  We are after all only 100 kms away from Jhansi.  

And now we are about to get something very close to our very own Bacon Bungalow.  The next sentence tells us that: “Lalitpur is the..

There we are.  American Mission.  The colonial short-hand for the Reformed Episcopal Mission (“RE Mission) which Mrs. Elizabeth Mercy Bacon had established in Lalitpur in 1890.   The gazeteer refers to it as having an orphanage, something which was run for many years by the RE Mission.   

The dispensary mentioned may be a British one or may refer to the nascent medical work of the RE Mission which later becomes the Harriet Benson Memorial Hospital.

Skipping a few lines we come to the end of the entry about Lalitpur town:

Lalitpur has a large and increasing export of oilseeds, hides and ghi, besides considerable road traffic with the neighbouring Native States.  Large quantities of dried beef are exported to Rangoon.  There are four schools with 247 pupils, including 25 girls.

Fascinating to know about beef exports.  And to think of all the 247 students in the town being able to comfortably fit into a single year of any of the many schools that are all over the town today.  The RE Mission school on our campus has over 1000 students alone.

Here is what the Lalitpur students of today look like – or should I say yesterday since this was the prayer at the Republic Day event that took place at the school while we were on our Hospital Republic Day picnic:

(Picture courtesy  A. Masih)

As thrilled as I was to get this information – and especially to see a reference our hospital campus, I wondered why I didn’t seem to be getting more hits about Lalitpur from colonial times. 

Then I had the thought – let’s use an archaic spelling.  If Kanpur was called Cawnpore during the Raj, wouldn’t Lalitpur be known as Lalitpore?  That helped… and a few documents later I was led me to an even older spelling for Lalitpur: “Lullutpore.” 

Bingo.  I now have a small treasure trove of information – and will be digging for more.

Coming up in a later blog post (I am pretty sure) – an amazing look into the past history of drought and famine in this area.   Today’s breakthrough was getting digitized versions of the Census of the North West Provinces from 1872 and a Raj era government account of the famine of 1868-70.  “Lullutpore” lost 4.7% of its population in 1869 the peak year of that famine.

Stay tuned.  History is being … unearthed.

Monday, 25 January 2016

One year with Yohan

A year ago today, on the 24th of January 2015, this little fellow joined our family.

And what a year it has been since Yohan entered fully into our lives.

We look back on the 365 days he has completed with us with much gratitude.

Here is a picture of Sheba and Yohan on the first day that he came into our home.

Who would have thought that we would be with three teenagers in 2016?

Who would have expected that I would be writing this from Lalitpur, while Yohan’s first anniversary of his joining our family was with Sheba and Asha and Enoch in Thane.

Yohan has grown taller and put on more weight – though he is still on the thin side of the spectrum.  
But his appetite is a wonderful thing to see.  Where all that rice disappears to is a happy mystery for us.

Each day over this year he has taken his medicines very faithfully.  With a big smile.  And a prayer.    His immunity has improved dramatically.  We do not see the runny eyes that he had when we first came to our home.  His skin sores have cleared – though some of the scars remain.  

Here in Lalitpur, my mobile alarm goes off every evening at 9 PM and I remember that it is medicine time for Yohan – and offer a small prayer on his behalf.

There are still lots of things to pray for.  We have extended our foster care and are now in our second 6 month period of caring for Yohan - but the adoption formalities are caught in an on-going swirl of papers and steps yet to be taken.  We have worked hard to do what we are told, but there seems no clear end in sight.  Miracle needed right now!

And then there is the whole life-long project of filling the 11 years of Yohan's life that the locusts have eaten.  How to build up what has been lost to horrible experiences.  How to guide and structure Yohan's personality into one that allows him to blossom into the person he was created to be.

We as a family are also still growing and adjusting to being 5 instead of 4.   All things considered, Asha and Enoch have done very well - though this year has had its hard spots too.  We are proud of Asha's maturity and deep love for Yohan, and her patience with him as she helps with his learning at different time.   We are thankful for Enoch's friendliness and willingness to include Yohan into games and the good brother he is to his new younger bro.

Looking back on the year, it has been Sheba who has been the prime instrument of blessing to Yohan. Her love and prayers and care and teaching and multiple constant and continuing inputs into our son has brought him to be the person that he is today.  I am so amazed and thankful for all the ways that she has expressed our love to Yohan and know that every loving word and act is shaping and forming Yohan in many foundational ways.  Who can measure a mother's love?

Looking back to a year ago, we are just so grateful that Yohan is alive, and with us.  The biggest challenge medically has been his seizure disorder.   We have had an episode about every 2 months or so.  The fits were generally fairly mild and lasting not longer than 3-5 minutes.   

Last month, however, we understood just how bad his seizures used to be.  We paid a visit with Yohan to the family who had rescued him from the streets, and Sheba went and saw the places where he had grown up.  The neighbouring lady told us that Yohan used to have multiple fits - almost daily.

According to this lady, during one of the epileptic episodes Yohan actually fell into this open gutter:

So we come to our first anniversary of Yohan joining our family with so much gratitude.  What a miracle he is with us.  What a blessing to have so many praying for us in this journey.  What challenges are there to help him grow in his basic literacy skills and develop into the person that our good Lord wants him to be.  What a privilege to walk together as a family.


Sunday, 24 January 2016

New doors

Sunday afternoon.  Sun outside. I am indoors, under a razai, tapping away on the acer.  A short nap is past.  My system would be happy for some caffeine about now…

I have been catapulted into a new world.  A world very, very different from the 13 years that we have spent in Thane, but a part of our Father’s big world and big plan none-the-less.

Having arrived on a misty rainy morning on Tuesday, I am crossing 125 hours of being in Lalitpur as the director of the community health and development work of the Harriet Benson Memorial Hosptial.

Early days in this role, but I am already aware of some of the challenges in store.

How to bring about transformational change in a dry and thirsty place?

How to work with communities that are riven with deep caste divisions?

How to see change happen when we ourselves are so limited and have so many flaws easily visible?

How to work with a system that is already in place, and yet help all of us achieve the long-lasting results that we all so very much want?

How to manage the expectations of the different stake-holders – our local hospital employees, our funding supporters, the community volunteers and workers, our central office supervisors?

How to hear what the Spirit is telling the churches?   How to encourage broad-based cooperation and mutual prayer and understanding between God’s people?

There is much to learn.  Much to hear.  Much to understand.

As I look back on these days I remember an image from the village where we stopped on our way back from meeting the community health and development activists involved with our work in the Bar block.

We were invited to the home of one of the men who has been quite active with the programme.  His village was on the way back and he insisted that we stop at his home.

The local panchayat elections had just been held a few weeks earlier, and many of the walls were painted with a slogan urging people to ‘vote for imli’- the tamarind fruit being a symbol of one of the contestants for the post of sarpanch.

In our friend’s home a 2016 calendar was on the wall – courtesy of the ‘imli symbol’ candidate.  

Tellingly, the image on the calendar was of a man.  A greying, heavy-set man whose photo looked impassively at you.  Next to his picture was his name – and the name of the official candidate – who was his wife.  No picture of her.  We can tell who will be calling the shots in this political family.

Our host’s wife came to us and tried to touch our feet.  Her face was covered with her saree as she served us water and brought out a plate of various sweets – jiggery sweetened balls of puffed rice, various kinds of heavy gram-flour based laddoos, small fried dough sticks.  There were no children, because the couple have not conceived in the decade-long marriage.

We drank sweet ginger tea while talking about the village and what has been going on here before we bundled back into our jeep and drove back the 45 minute journey we had taken earlier in the day.
One of the neighbouring houses had this door – which was the image that has stayed in my mind.

First of all, the beauty of a heavily carved wooden door.  In a world of the instant and the plastic, to see something carved, something solid, something that has weathered time and tide is a joy. 

How many years have gone by since this handsome wooden carving was first fitted into its frame?  What history has it seen over the seasons in that home?  Which generations have come and gone while stooping down through its low opening?  What sorrows and joys have happened through that frame?  New brides welcomed, dead bodies taken out, youngsters starting school or old men coming home after days of toil?  If the door could tell stories, which ones would it choose to regale us with?

The striking blue paint that the householders chose for their wall colour (other buildings were painted even more brightly – I saw some bright yellow homes) is decorated with maroon flowers and ‘shub labh’ is written in the decorated masonry above the door itself.

“Good luck” – or “may fortune smile on you” would be a rough translation of this word.  A kind of blessing on those who come in and go out. 

How much ‘luck’ will this family have experienced in the course of their lives?  Where do we seek hope for the challenges of living every day.  For the big issues and small tasks that make up a life?
I would like to talk with the householders of that door, but on this short visit that was not possible.  

The door was locked.  The family who lived there was not at home.

And so I am left with this image of a beautiful door, which is locked.

I had earlier in the day met with the community activists and shared with them the story of a crippled man who was brought every day to a ‘beautiful gate’ of the temple in Jerusalem.  Two penniless disciples of our Lord had met him as he asked for alms.  But instead of giving him the expected coin or two that he was begging for, they gave him Jesus and transformed him from a helpless beggar to a walking and dancing worshipper who with joy joined them in the temple for prayer.

The single beautiful locked door could be a picture, I believe, for this whole area of Bundhelkhand.  So much potential.  So many locks.  The very purpose for which the door was made – to be a portal to welcome people in being halted by… a whole list of different issues and complications.

Our task at this point is to learn humbly and act wisely and seek God’s mercy and love to help touch lives.

Encouragingly, the Spirit has something to say about doors.

In the book of Revelation we read about how the Lord speaks to a church in the city of Laodicea (now part of Turkey) and urges them to come back to Him.  He says to them “Here I am! I stand at the door and knock. If anyone years my voice and opens the door, I will come in and eat with him and he with me.”   How true this is of all of our lives.  We have doors which we have bolted and shut from the inside.  Our loving Lord is knocking still and gently but firmly asking us to open up.  Would that we would do so – and would that many doors across this region would open up that way too.

But there is another message too.  This one is given to a group of Christ-followers who were gathering in the city of Philadelphia.  Here the Spirit tells them that ‘see I have placed before you an open door that no-one can shut.’  Now our beautiful brown door, mounted in the bright blue wall seems pretty firmly shut.  But could we see it with eyes of faith?  Could our Lord hold the keys to opening up this door and many others like it?

Would that the Lord would open our eyes to see doors that are open and will not be shut!   Could this door be the first?

We go in faith, our own great weakness feeling,
And needing more each day Thy grace to know:
Yet from our hearts a song of triumph pealing,
“We rest on Thee, and in Thy Name we go.”

Saturday, 23 January 2016

An early morning walk around the HBM Campus

A morning walk around the sprawling combined 11 acre campus of the Harriet Benson Memorial Hospital and the RE Mission School is bracing and beautiful in the cold of January.

So cold that yesterday the District Collector decreed that all children below 9th standard should stay at home and not go to school because it would be too cold for them in their unheated classrooms.

But today the chill was abated a bit by the precious rays of sun-light.

Come with me on a walking tour of the campus.  We will start on the road near the RE mission school.  This is a Hindi-medium school for over 1000 students.  We are considering putting Yohan in this school when we shift here as a family.

The school is near the original mission bungalow, named the ‘Bacon Bungalow’ after Mary Mercy Bacon who helped establish the mission.  A plaque on the bungalow says it was purchased in 1890.  How much older than that is the building itself?  The details lie buried...somewhere.

Here is the front view of the bungalow.

The screened veranda is now used as the hospital mess – I currently eat my meals here and have been encountering new folks almost each time so far.  The un-married nurses (male and female), community health staff, store keepers, doctors and yours truly break our bread together here.

The Bacon bungalow has been restored and is currently used as a training centre for palliative care.  There are c lass rooms inside and dormitories for course participants.
On the other side of the bungalow is a sprawling porch with an old swing on it.  And a badminton court which sees active use each night.  I have played there one night so far and can vouch that the players are pretty fiercely competitive – but all in good spirit.

Lets walk through some of the more overgrown parts of the compound.  Behind the Bacon bungalow is what must have been an ornamental garden at one time.

I found some striking pillars amidst the undergrowth.


On ahead, through the bush and you come to this scene – the campus water tower, next to the well.  Looking like something out of the magical start to CS Lewis' Narnia tale Prince Caspian when the Pevenses come back to the ruins of Cair Paravel and they find it all over grown.

I have always found the opening of Prince Caspain stirring, as the children slowly discover that what looks an overgrown jungle was the place where they had ruled and reigned in another era.

And of course we need to peek into the well.

It is clearly an old one!

Shall we cut across the campus now?

Right in the middle of the campus is the Calvary Church – which is run by the Reformed Episcopal Mission but is very much a community church these days.  Most of the hospital staff worship here on Sundays.  

Here is a look at the church building framed in arch of its small bell tower which is 10 m away from the main structure.

Shall we walk past the fields.  

Fields you say?  

Yes, smack in the middle of the campus are fields

There has been a shortage of rain (though you wouldn’t think it was so on this oasis of a campus) but it has meant that the demonstration field that the community health and development programme has sown has gone to seed.  Not enough water meant that their efforts went in vain.

Now lets look at the back of the hospital.

There is some construction going on – with a large tin roof being erected over the main hospital buildings.  The idea is two-fold.  Protection from the rain in the monsoon (the flat concrete roofs inevitably start leaking) and protection from the searing heat in summer.

A team from Kerala has come to build it. The overseeing engineer and his workers are here for the duration of the construction.

A peek into one of the gardens of the hospital shows that it is still early in the morning.  The patient’s relatives are all still indoors.  When the sun comes out properly, they will be sunning themselves in its warming rays.

The campus has plenty of old buildings = it just drips history.  You can sometimes wonder which century you are in.

But some of the old is making way for the new.  This is the site for new staff accommodation.  I have been drafted onto the building committee and we talked at length today about the plans to construct 6 new housing units for staff.  There was a dilapidated building there which made way for what is to come…

We will end out walk around part of the campus knowing that there is more to explore.  

This a paradise for kids.  Where do you find trees like this these days?

It’s still cold, and I am dressed in my various layers of black.  Time to step into the mess for breakfast of hot puries and alu sabji – washed down with some hot tea.

And then on to the 8.30 AM prayer time that starts the day at Harriet Benson Memorial Hospital in Lalitpur.

Praise God from whom all blessings flow!

Thursday, 21 January 2016

I write this...

I write this in the stillness of a Lalitpur night.  Still that is, other than the thumping music of a marriage party at “Hotel Rhim Jhim” which is at the back of the hospital campus.  It is marriage season, and early this morning I took a prayer walk around the outer perimeter of the 11 acre campus, and passed the aforesaid hotel which has a large space for marriage receptions – and a permanent display of flags along the approach road to make sure that the nuptial celebrations are suitably grand.
I write this under a razai, wearing a sweater.  Tonight is not as cold as yesterday.  My first day in Lalitpur was a baptism by ice.  It was raining when the train pulled into the station, and the sun did not shine at all, leaving everything in a cold clammy embrace.  I soon realized that my shirt and sweater did not cut it – and so put on the long-johns, the extra sweater, the scarf.  My whole winter wardrobe – all at once.  A man in black.

The day was spent plunged into the arcane world of proposals, with Thomas from the central office in Delhi paying a visit to check out how the watershed programme has been running – and finding a number of gaps that need to be rectified.  I was nursing a tiredness headache that didn’t get better  with the cold and the reams of columns to look at and logistical frame-works to try and decipher.  Welcome to the accountability structure that undergirds the community health projects of EHA.

I write this after having sweated for the first time in the 48 hrs that I have been here.  This evening – after a good first session for me with the ‘Men’s club’ (a group of men on campus who are fathers and who want to be better dads) I played 3 rounds of table tennis with Daniel K. and then 2 games of badminton with Lukas, Perrin and Murmu.   It’s been a while since I have done anything physically active – and I have a belly to prove it.

I write this with an ache in my heart, missing my dear ones in Thane.  I have their photo on this laptop, but they are ever on my mind.  I feel like a kind of ‘John the Baptist’ going forward to prepare the way for them.  And there is a lot to prepare.

I write this having met almost all of the community health and development team at a get-together in the village of Bar.  Both the watershed management and reproductive child health project staff and local workers met up – partly to officially welcome me – and also to work through some of the task that have emerged out of Thomas’ visit the day before. 

I want to write more, but my yawns are threatening to have my jaw drop off, so I shall call it a night.  
More tomorrow about the community health and development programme – of which I find myself appointed as the director.

For now, I will snuggle further under my razai and after prayer, I will let my closed eyes take me to dream-land.

Wednesday, 20 January 2016

Moving Pictures

Act 1

A perfect golden ball of a sun – glowing dustily over winter dried fields and scrub.   The next window-glance sees a Nippon-flag globe, sinking down through the smog of small industries and tiny home-clusters.

Our train murmurs along, with occasional chatter of tracks when we cross the points.  Two of my three train mates are supine, curled in grateful sleep in the quietness of the air-condition coach.
Another watches a movie intently on his large mobile phone (or would that be communicative entertainment system).  His blue tooth ear-phones blinking occasionally.  Blue.  Now he holds a phone in each hand and is watching a video while scrolling through messages.  Outside the villages have given way to unseen forests (by our crew at least) and the blue green ridges of the Aravallis loom quietly behind.

I am off to Lalitpur.  I report for work tomorrow morning.  My brother’s hard-case guitar, the biggest rolly-bag we have filled with clothes and books, a small one for my rusty-trusty computer and a supper of parathas and egg bujia lovingly prepared by Sheba are the happy burdens I bear north as we race past black-burnt fields, ready for a future planting, our train taking us on into the coming gloom.

Act 2

Unusually for the Indian Railways, as I write this, I find myself am totally on my own in my section of the train.  The three chaps have gotten off at Igatpuri – and no-one else has taken their place – so far at least.   Trains normally halt at this tiny town for a generous helping of time so that their ‘extra locomotives’ can be uncoupled.   As if to underline what I tapped into this comp, the whole train just experienced a little surge for about half a meter forward, and is now stationary again.
We have successfully reached the top of the Western Ghats and now will tootle off into the wide expanse of the Deccan Plateau.   We will also be heading north into the cold.  I have not worn a sweater in January since I don’t know when.  But here goes.  

It is now pitch dark outside.  The platform is dim behind the tinting of the far-side windows.   Seeing through a glass darkly, I am treated to a single bulb glowing under the roof of some official looking building, and the yellow letters announcing F.K. IRANI WINE SHOP.    As we gently start moving again,  a slow stutter to begin with, more lights are seen and roads open up to view.
A small army of vendors have passed through.  A their calls – some sing-song, some sharp, some matter-of-fact – mingle with the steady murmuring of conversation punctuated with the insistant words of a child.

Act 3

Early morning.  Mist outside.  Cold already creeps in.  I take out the sweaters.  Black and black.  My trusty SHALOM muffler. Made 18 years ago by women recovering Injecting Drug Users in a different place and different era.  Its blackness still keeps my throat warm.

Small stations flit by outside the window.  Ghostlike trees emerge and dissappear.   My tiredness headache grinds itself into a corner of my head.  Nights when you know you may miss a 2 minute train stop are not full of rest.

The night has seen a family of 6 take up the empty spaces with their food and camaraderie - and then get off early in the morning at Bhopal.  A figure sleeps in a lower bunk.  One man is awake and we chat in the morning gloom, me sipping a cup of chai.  It's too sweet for him - a free spirit, trekker and nature photographer from Kanpur - who runs an educational enterprise to make ends meet.

A young woman wakes up the sleeping form.  Why are you here? She remonstrates.  We have been looking for you for half an hour - 'bahut parishaan hua!'   The mother sheepishly says that it was open so she decided to sleep there.

More fog outside.  I had nipped out at Bina and was told the train had another 45 mins before it would hit Lalitpur.

Finally the train enters a town and before we know it has stopped at the station.  Lalitpur says the big yellow sign at the end of the platform.  I bid goodbye to my fellow conversationalist - who helpfully carries out the guitar while I roll the elephant of a bag towards the door.

It is raining slightly as I step out into the cold and am greeted by the warm smiles of Daniel and Biju.

Our dear Daniel has come to Lalitpur for a month of orientation into the EHA community health and palliative care work here.  Biju is the head of the hospital and has gracious come to meet me.

A new day has begun.

Saturday, 16 January 2016

To tell a tale...

In what could easily be an album cover for a rock star who has seen the world and sung the blues... we present our dear Mum!

Mum has certainly seen the world - from her childhood in the ebb of the 3rd Reich and the years under the Marxists of the 'German Democratic Republic' to her European wanderings as a refugee and then her God-guided coming to India and all that happened after that.

As for the blues?  She has seen much suffering and has gone through deep valleys herself, but has emerged with a love supreme.  And keeps putting her hope in the One whose sufferings overflow for our comfort - and allows us to comfort others in any kind of grief.

Mum's mean new look is actually her meekly obeying a doctor rather than poses as a rebel without a cause.   She had a cataract operation last week, had a check up this week and is due for her next operation on Thursday the 21st.   The ophthalmic surgeon put in an intra-ocular lens and will do the same for the other eye.  Mum did great in her first round and we are praying for the same for the second.

In the mean time, Dad has to care for her after all the months when she was caring for him.  

That's what God created us for in marriage ... in sickness and in health, till death do us part!

Sheba's parents have stepped into their 50th year of marriage this past week - and we are already looking forward to celebrating the 50th wedding anniversary in Jan 2017.   Mum and Dad's marriage has been growing stronger since Dec. 23rd 1967 - so we will be celebrating at the end of 2017.

In the meantime, gentle readers, I would like your prayers and suggestions as I try and help Mum and Dad write the stories of their lives over the next 6 months.  

If you had the opportunity to read Mum and Dad's story - how would you like it written?  Should it be in a first-person voice?  or a 3rd person?   What parts of their lives should it focus on?  Where to even start - should it be a clear linear story or should we go back and forth?

There are so many tales to tell - and what an opportunity to share about how God has graciously touched and used two ordinary people in amazing ways - and how He continues to shape them more and more into His character.

Stay tuned ... and please send us your advice - either directly on the blog or to  

Asha @ 15

15 years ago today our lives changed in a wonderful way.

Asha was born.

Time to celebrate of course.

But how?

The age-old Eicher way - party and all that?

We are transitioning to a new age.  For the first time after 14 years... no cake shaped by Dad - daughter's request.  So a chocolate-laden confectionary was purchased (contributions made to our GNP and to 'Make in India').

Party?  Nope.  Well, not in that name.  Sleep-over planned, but with us all in the midst of the dreaded 'exams' the brave souls who finally ended up in the sleep-over were Joanna and Amy.  The others showed up around 8 pm for the pizza and a round of 'who am I?' and an epic pictionary game.  Then they were back off to their homes for studies (or sleep and wake up early for studies).

And so a grand time was had by all.  We are grateful that Asha has such lovely friends.

Pretty good for an un-party.

And then the sleep-overers had a movie marathon till well into Asha's actual birthday - which is of course today.

But at the 9 am pancake breakfast our young guns did not look too much the worse for the wear.  The advantages of youth!

Happy Birthday Asha - we are so glad for who you are... and who you are becoming!

May your 16th year be one of discovery and joy.

Yohan, Enoch, Asha, Joanna and Amy

 The verse we selected for you expresses part of this:

I will give you hidden treasures,
    riches stored in secret places,
so that you may know that I am the Lord,

    the God of Israel, who summons you by name.    - Isaiah 45.3

Thursday, 14 January 2016


Books are keys to wisdom's treasure;
Books are gates to lands of pleasure;
Books are paths that upward lead;
Books are friends. Come, let us read.                                  - Emilie Poulsson

One of the pleasant problems that faces us as we think about moving... is what to do with our books.  We have 3 steel racks full of them.  And others are hiding in cupboards.  The National Geographics are already in boxes under the bed.

Oh blessed surfeit of books.  I am well past the point where I can say that I have read all of them.  But even knowing that they are there, unread, is a pleasure.

The younger generation is split cleanly into two parts.  Asha and Enoch are one part.  They have a well-founded complaint. "We don't have any books."   Translation:  We have read all of our books - many of them multiple times - and we are hungry for new ones.   One of the best things about going to Shanti Kunj for them is the library.

Yohan is the second part.  As I write this, Sheba is teaching him to read.  I can hear him struggling through words - reading syllables aloud - getting explanations for what the words mean and what their context are.  Sometimes in English, sometimes in Hindi.

How sad to have so many books around him and to have him unable - yet - to pick up a volume, flop onto a bed and read to his heart's content.

But we believe the day is coming.

Meanwhile, Sheba continues to devour books - perhaps making up for the lost time of all those years of med school and preparation for it?

As for me - I am reading a biography about a biographer - Geraldine Taylor - the daugther-in-law of Hudson Taylor and author along with her husband (though it was mainly her) of Hudson Taylor's Spiritual Secret and The Triumph of John and Betty Stam. 

As it the trend these days, Sheba read it before me.  What a life of devotion.  What a challenge.  And what a gift to be able to read about lives from the past ... through the blessed pages of a book.

Hooray for books!

P.s. Emilie Poulsson, who wrote the small poem that starts this post became blind as a child - she read her books in Braille - and became an early childhood education and nurture advocate...

Tuesday, 12 January 2016

Sifting through flotsam and jetsam

It's almost a fortnight since we stepped out of the Jeevan Sahara Kendra.

Yesterday and today were spent sifting through some of the piles of files from our 13 years of work with JSK.   I want to be able to give my successor something tangible to work with... but what to keep and what to throw?

It's melancholy work, seeing memories wash up on pieces of paper.  Having lots of 'what if' questions...

Here is a peek into our room - courtesy of the our own personal papers which needed sorting out over the weekend!

Mercifully these have all been sorted out - but the JSK task remains.

It's a wonderful life - and we are so blessed to live it out!

Monday, 11 January 2016

Vasu: On reaching a big number

We met on a dark station platform
Our little family of three stumbling out
To the welcome party of you
The night split by your smile

You hoped we would make Igatpuri our home
Purnatha our lives
It didn’t quite work that way
Though our lives have twined
At various levels

And now you have reached
An amazing number of sun-spins
Since your Amma welcomed you
Into the Madras of 4th January
In the year of our Lord 1966

Can it be that you are fifty?
How does that number fit you
Dear friend?  Knowing you
There are new dreams brewing
More King-pleasing designs
Being drawn up, dizzying

The road is your home
Kabul boy, world-oyster locally-rooted
You ache for Heimat, for Gaon
Heart-panting for a coming abode
Garden city, King encircling, never ending
Far from Chicken street and yet so close

And now, just before we part
(For a moment, an era?)
We have the added sweet-pain of daughters
As peas, of families enmeshed
Dreams alive

Keep questing deeper, dear Friend
Keep hungering for that which will truly satisfy
Dig deeper into He who called you
By name, as stars and galaxies spun into place

Fifty years, a moment, a brief candle
A small trickle, a rivulet before the joyous roar of
Eternity, yet each sliver of a second, and the next
Priceless, and paid for in full.
 - With love from Andi, Sheba, Asha, Enoch & Yohan Eicher

On Saturday evening we had a lovely 'surprise' party for Vasu to celebrate his half-century along with his wife Sheba and their daughters Joanna and Amy and sundry friends.   What a legacy of joy Vasu has.  It has been a privilege for us to know him since June 2001, and here is to many more years of sojourning together!

One of the more dramatic times was when he almost died with a brain seizure  three years ago.  And how grateful we all are to our loving Lord for keeping this remarkable man going.  We all agreed that he seems to have found the fountain of youth - a quick survey around the room found 3 baldies and 2 snow-heads... and Vasu looking like he has stepped out of the late 1980s...  We are very thankful to the Lord for this special man - and his amazing family!

As we sang on Saturday night (among other songs) for he's a jolly good fellow, for he's a jolly good fellow... and so say all of us!