The Yanceys soon leave for India on a 15-hour nonstop flight from Chicago to New Delhi. Then we hit the ground running: a meeting in Delhi the night after we arrive, then the next three nights in a row: Bangalore, Chennai (Madras), and Hyderabad Nov. 23. We have a few days to tour some projects among the Untouchables, then on to Mumbai (Bombay) on Nov. 27, which is Thanksgiving in the US. I doubt we’ll be eating a turkey dinner this year. After that we’ll have a few days R&R in the state of Kerala, which has the highest percentage of Christians but is also governed by the Communist Party. And on to Delhi for some time with the Other Backward Castes (a huge group just above the Dalits or Untouchables and often neglected).
Here are the mundane, but oh-so-important prayer requests. First, that we’ll handle the l-o-n-g trip OK. We really have no recuperation time on arriving in India, so that’s important. And a specific request from Philip: pray for resistance to disease. I’ve been to India several times, and always come down with awful fever and debilitating intestinal upset. Diarrhea and public speaking—I’ve learned they don’t go together very well. In the past I’ve always traveled with Dr. Paul Brand or other medical people, so they could drug me. India is the kind of place where you can get sick touching the wrong fork or just breathing the air. I could really use your prayers.
Now for the main request. You may have heard that huge riots have been occurring in the Orissa state, in the northeast of India. These started last January and break out periodically, with the majority Hindu population persecuting Christians. In August alone 4,100 Christian homes were torched, 18,000 people injured and 50,000 people displaced, many of them hiding out in forests. Dozens have died, and there have been excruciating reports of violence and rape. We will not be in Orissa, but we keep getting reports from our hosts. In a country where Christians constitute only 2-3 percent of the population, this kind of action sends shock waves through the whole Christian community. Meanwhile, I’m supposed to speak on Grace…
There will be about 2,000 people at each event, and though small the Christian community is a major cultural force in the country. When I think about it, I feel very inadequate to speak to these people. And maybe that’s a good place to start. I also feel in need of prayer, and thank you.
India! I’ve been here twice before, but not since 1990. Everyone talks about “the new India,” and of course many times when you call for help with your computer or software you end up talking to a whiz kid in Bangalore or Hyderabad. Much has changed since 1990. You can sense that most easily in traffic in the cities. More than 4,000 cars are added to the streets every single day in this country, added to roads designed for bullock carts and horses hundreds of years ago. Motorbikes and three-wheel taxis stream through the snarl of traffic like little fish making their way through a school of bigger ones. You must figure an hour or so to get anywhere in one of the major cities—yesterday it took us an hour to drive two miles, thanks to road works, a diversion, and thousands of backlogged trucks.
Leave the cities, though, and the old India surges back. Women walking along the road with piles of straw, or water buckets, or pots and pans balanced precariously on their heads. Water buffalo pulling hand-hewn plows to till the ground. Irrigation systems run by men who stand all day dipping water from one channel to another. Bent-over old women sweeping the streets with hand-made brooms of straw with no handle. Grain drying on the shoulder of the highway. More Indians have a mobile phone, we are told, than have access to clean water.
Janet and I both like to go jogging on trips, and Indian cities offer a challenging place for that. The streets turn into narrow alleys that wind around and around before reaching a dead-end. Dogs bark and chase anything that runs. In the morning people are sweeping their porches, washing motorbikes, cooking breakfast, cranking up the sing-song Indian music. And if you’re anywhere near a main road, you breathe in the fumes of thousands of vehicles’ exhaust, few of which have any pollution control. In the center of the city, as one Indian told me, “there’s no room even to die.”
And yet, and yet…you are surrounded by the richness of life, especially extended family life. The novel (and movie) The Namesake, written by a Bengali woman who won the Pulitzer Prize, contrasts the warm, connected life in India, where you’re constantly surrounded by people and family, with the cold, isolated life of Americans tucked away in their single-family homes surrounded by manicured lawns. Indians are unfailingly gracious. At every airport and venue we are met by a welcoming committee with large photo banners announcing our presence, floral leis and bouquets, and sometimes school children in uniform singing greetings.
“Indians are unfailingly gracious. At every airport and venue we are met by a welcoming committee with large photo banners announcing our presence, floral leis and bouquets, and sometimes school children in uniform singing greetings.”
In Hyderabad we spent a day touring some of the work being done by our hosts here, OM Books. In addition to publishing they run many social action programs, including 80 schools targeting the Dalits, formerly known as Untouchables. The school had over 400 students, beginning with pre-kindergarten at age four. All the youngsters were lined up in precise rows awaiting our arrival. They gave speeches, read aloud from the newspaper, sang the national anthem as well as hymns, recited the 23rd psalm together. After we said a few words of greeting they marched off to classrooms. We visited many of the classrooms and they proudly displayed their knowledge, reciting the a, b, c’s at top volume: “Capital A, small a, Capital B, small b, Capital C, small c…” What struck me was the absence of cynicism or irony, such as you would find in any American school. These kids are the first generation of Dalits in four thousand years to get an education, moreover they’re getting it in English, assuring them of decent employment. Each day a health worker checks them for signs of malnutrition and health problems. They get a good lunch and two school uniforms including shoes. They return to their homes with pride, elevating the spirit of the whole community.
We also visited a clothing workshop that makes high-fashion clothes for an outlet in Colorado organized by a friend from Colorado. We met six beautiful young Dalit women cutting out patterns and sewing the silk jackets by hand, little guessing the tragic lives they had already lived. Our guide later filled us in: one was raped three times before she turned 14, another was kicked out of her home when she delivered a girl baby…and on and on.
In the afternoon we visited a “pipe village” where some of the students live, next to a factory that makes the kind of large concrete pipes used for drainage of sewage and flood waters. For years they discarded the reject pipes in a field, and in time the workers’ families moved in. They literally live inside these concrete pipes, perhaps five feet in diameter. Some industrious families have added on room extensions with homemade brick walls and scrap tin on the roof. Some have just the one room you must stoop to enter; others have a sleeping room and then a kitchen and perhaps a privy out back. There’s no running water, of course, or electricity. All day long the concrete pipes absorb the sun’s heat, so when you do stoop to enter these pipe-homes you feel like you’re entering an oven.
We saw kids in dirty clothes running around, chasing each other, posing for photos, singing songs for the foreign guests—some of the very same kids who had been lined up in smart uniforms earlier that day. One of the little girls told us she planned to be a doctor some day, “a cardiologist.” Imagine the quantum leap in dreams of these Dalit children who previously faced a life of sweeping streets or emptying the latrines of the higher castes.
In the midst of the pipe village stood a “pipe church.” The pastor showed us where he teaches the children who do not attend school, and they too proudly demonstrated their knowledge. A young woman doctor visits there regularly, providing medical care, and she too accompanied us, picking up one by one the young children she looks after.
The statistics in India boggle the mind. There are 160 million Dalits, at the bottom of the caste ladder. Though nominally Hindu, they are not even allowed in Hindu temples, and in recent years have increasingly turned to Islam, Buddhism, and Christianity. Just above them are the Other Backward Castes which comprise more than half of India’s population: 500 million people! Some of the activists coming out of these castes see Hinduism as an oppressive social structure, designed to keep them “in their place.” And of course any sign of agitation prompts an outburst from fundamentalist Hindus who want to keep things as they are. That partly explains the recent outbreak of violence in Orissa, in the northeast of India, where in August alone 50,000 Christians were chased out of their homes and dozens killed.
Today, in Hyderabad, I will be meeting with 15-20 academics who are leading the way in agitating for rights for these lower castes. We’ll be holding a “debate” on Jesus, Gandhi, and Ambedkar (a leader of the Dalits who has more respect here than Gandhi). That’s really a sideline of the trip, however. Mainly I’m here to speak at the large gatherings sponsored by OM Books.
Each city has presented its own challenges. The first night, in New Delhi, I learned as I arrived at the venue that the talk would be translated, which meant I had to quickly cut my speech in half because translation takes twice as long. A crowd of 3,000 was sitting outdoors, and I had to compete with car horns and alarms and a balky computer that projected my Power Point slides at all the wrong times. In Bangalore the power kept cutting off the microphone as the soloist was performing. In Hyderabad I was the victim of power cuts. In the middle of my talk the large auditorium went completely dark. I stood there for a few minutes not knowing what to do until someone yelled out “We can still hear you!” and so then I shouted in the dark until the lights and power came back on. No one blinks at a power cut in India, the high-tech capital of the world. In Chennai we met in a large church, no air-conditioning, blazing hot. Rain squalls kept down the expected crowds, as streets were flooded and buses couldn’t make it. The church had a policy of no shoes on the platform, so this one I delivered barefoot. I call experiences like these “combat speaking.”
Indians are very patient people, and nothing seems to bother them. The meetings start at 5:30 or 6pm, and I don’t get up to speak until 8pm, after much music, long introductions, endless thank yous and other formalities. Afterwards Janet and I sit at a book table for an hour and sign books. OM is offering an incredible deal: three of my books (Fearfully and Wonderfully Made, What’s So Amazing About Grace? and Church: Why Bother?) for the equivalent of five US dollars—with two bonus books thrown in free! We have little time for interaction, for Indians did not seem to learn orderly queues from the British, and they crowd around shoving books, cameras, and cell phone cameras in our faces. By the time we get back to the hotel, we’re ready for bed.
This is my first visit to India without Dr. Paul Brand, who introduced me to this country almost 30 years ago. I mention him each time I speak, and inevitably someone comes up with a story of connection. Last night in Hyderabad, for instance, an elderly woman in a sari told of riding in a train for 12 hours to attend the meeting. In 1980 she read Fearfully and Wonderfully Made just after it came out, and began praying for her son to follow in Dr. Brand’s footsteps as a doctor. She didn’t tell him about her prayer, since often children do the very opposite of their parents’ wishes, but as it happened he trained at the Medical College in Vellore where Dr. Brand taught, and today he works as a hand surgeon in a department named for Dr. Brand.
So much has happened in my own life in the years since my last visit. Then I was a journalist following around a man I esteemed and admired, taking notes, trying to capture his life and thoughts. Now I’m thrust up on platforms with lights in my eyes facing an audience that expects something from me. I must admit, I feel more comfortable with the older role than the newer. And I am constantly amazed that something I work on, alone in my office in Colorado, somehow strikes a responsive chord in people who live as a small religious minority in a hot, crowded country half a planet away. Writing does that, and I am deeply grateful for the many links provided by publishers to make possible that connection.
To all of you concerned about the Yanceys in India:
We are safe. Every other night we have stayed in a tourist-style hotel, the very kind targeted by terrorists in Mumbai (Bombay) last night and today. But last night when we arrived in Mumbai we stayed with a local doctor who runs a large hospital for the poor and also an AIDS hospital. He lives in Thane, about 20 miles from downtown Bombay where most of the trouble was. However, terrorists also hit near the airport, where we were due to stay tomorrow night (we’ll stay again at the doctor’s house). So it’s indeed providential that we had this one anomaly in our plans.
If you haven’t heard, terrorists struck with bomb blasts and gun fire at about 10 sites around Bombay. They dressed in police uniforms and stole police vehicles. They’ve killed 11 policemen and at least 160 others, and set fire to two of the finest hotels, the Taj Mahal and Oberoi. Another 250 people have been wounded, and authorities are calling for blood donations. The mood is much like 9/11/2001 in the US. Schools have been canceled, along with many businesses and public transportation is not really running.
I got up early this morning and went jogging in the semi-dark. By the time I returned my hosts had heard the news and were ready to send out a search party. It seems foreigners were targeted, and 15 U.K. citizens are still being held hostage. Gun battles continue.
India is used to terrorism, and they handle these things with amazing fortitude. Our meeting tonight has been canceled, and tomorrow we leave for the safer, rural region of Kerala. Don’t worry, we are fine. It’s Thursday morning here, Thanksgiving Day, and we are very thankful.
We are home! I must admit, it seemed surreal to drive in from the airport and see all the cars proceeding in an orderly fashion in their respective lanes, with no cows, goats, or water buffaloes wandering through traffic and no three-wheel auto rickshaws and two-wheel motorbikes darting in and out among vehicles constantly jockeying for position. The air is so clean! And the atmosphere so quiet: many trucks in India have a notice, “OK Honk Horn Please,” painted on the back, the one traffic rule all Indian drivers unfailingly obey.
As we left New Delhi, new terror threats had been made against three major airports, and we have never experienced such tight security. Soldiers swarmed the airport, some manning machine guns mounted on the backs of pickup trucks. We went through numerous searches of clothing and luggage, as well as several verbal interviews. A few hours later gunfire broke out in the Delhi airport, but by that time we were 40,000 feet in the air.
Last time I wrote from Mumbai just as the terror drama was unfolding. I don’t know how this played out in the western media, though I imagine it got major coverage. Most terror events hit suddenly and end just as suddenly; this one dragged on for sixty hours. Indian television gave it non-stop coverage, and it seems the terrorists themselves were following media reports of police strategy, adjusting their positions as they watched real-time images of commandos dropping from helicopters onto rooftops of the buildings they were holding.
Life virtually ground to a halt in Mumbai, just as it did in the US after 9/11. In restaurants and airports all over India, everyone sat glued to the television, with poignant banners running across the bottom carrying messages like “Veneeta, we are praying for you…Vijay, please call home—we are so worried.”
Each day the Indian papers recounted stories of the ongoing drama. A well-known female journalist text-messaged a half-page article about being held hostage in her hotel room, describing the gunshots and grenade blasts from battles fought in hotel corridors, and the smoke licking under the doors. Her last message was “Terrorist is in the bathroom, I’m under the bed…”; commandos found her body there hours later. Rumors spread like weeds, of scores of bodies floating in the hotel swimming pool, of explosives set to destroy entire buildings. (And, indeed, five days after the drama ended police found a huge unexploded bomb smack in the middle of the attacked train station.)
The 12-year-old son of a British couple dining in the Taj Mahal Hotel restaurant went to the bathroom just before terrorists attacked. For 36 hours his parents were held hostage, not knowing if their son had made it. All survived, and were reunited. A man who had just made a champagne toast in celebration of a business deal spent the next two days lying in shattered glass feigning death, his arm covering his face so they wouldn’t notice he was a foreigner. A Muslim couple heard a noise that sounded like firecrackers. They went to the window overlooking a popular café and were killed in a hail of bullets as their young son watched.
Just as in 9/11, tales of luck and heroism also surfaced. A dance troupe scheduled to be in the Taj restaurant left an hour early to perform at a wedding, just missing the horror. The manager of the Taj Hotel was helping hide guests in a basement food locker even as his wife and two children burned to death in their executive suite several floors above. One British lawyer, barricaded in his room and hiding under the bed, set up a kind of impromptu network with other hostages who had Blackberries. The Indian nanny caring for the 2-year-old son of a rabbi smuggled him out of the Jewish center, saving him from the torture and death that awaited his parents. (Israel has named her a “righteous Gentile” and offered her citizenship.)
An alert railroad employee announced over the loudspeaker of the main railway station, “The stairway from platform 1 is closed, please do not use it,” thus diverting crowds of passengers and saving hundreds of lives. At least 56 people died in the station, which got little international coverage because few foreigners were involved. Local policemen charged into the invaded hotels with 9mm. automatic pistols, only to meet terrorists wielding grenades and AK-47s. It took almost a day for well-equipped federal commandos to arrive.
As for the Taj Hotel, one Indian told me, “You cannot imagine what the Taj Mahal Palace Hotel means to the Indian people. It’s a great source of national pride, an icon, like the Statute of Liberty is to you.” No doubt you’ve seen photos of the magnificent building, constructed in 1903 by a wealthy Indian who had been refused entrance to a “whites only” British hotel. Similarly, the railway station dates from the Victorian era, was once called Victoria Station, and is listed as a World Heritage Site.
We were scheduled to hold a meeting that night in an auditorium not far away from the action, but of course that got canceled. I felt bad for the organizers who had worked for months planning a program, designing banners, and stocking books. Instead, we held an impromptu meeting in Thane, the city 20 miles away where we were staying in a private home. With only a few hours notice, more than 200 people showed up. I began by telling them what happened in the emergency room the day I broke my neck in an automobile accident. The doctor poked me with a straight pin here and there, asking me, “Does this hurt?” Each time I responded, “Yes!” and he smiled and said “Good!” A physical body is only healthy when it feels pain from all its parts. The barrage of emails I had received during the day showed that people all over the world were deeply concerned about what was transpiring in India, sharing in its pain.
We spent the next day visiting a remarkable hospital founded by Stephen Alfred, an Indian doctor who gave up his lucrative practice in England to return to serve poor people who have no access to medical care. Currently he is building an eight-story hospital, with most of the funds coming from within India. The old 80-bed hospital will be used by the AIDS/HIV branch, now operating out of a small clinic. India has no shortage of people, and we accompanied two social workers on their visits to clients in a slum area. The government provides free drugs for those with AIDS, and when a person is first diagnosed with the disease, these social workers visit the family every day, counseling other family members on safe practices and checking on the medication. They continue these visits weekly.
One family of five that we visited lives in a single concrete-block room no larger than 8×10. They keep it neat and clean, and follow the regimen meticulously. The social workers told us that when they first contacted the family, the 3-year-old was lying in a fetal position on the bed, unable to walk, mere skin and bones. Now she’s a healthy 8-year-old, playing outdoors, posing for photos. The mother, learning of another pregnancy, tried three times to abort the baby, and failed. Learning of this, the clinic doctors monitored the pregnancy and adjusted medication, and she delivered a healthy baby girl, now a rambunctious 3-year-old.
A first-time visitor to India is usually shocked by the seeming chaos of a billion people, many of whom live in poverty unimaginable to the West. Yet under the surface you find many signs of compassion, and come away amazed by their endurance, graciousness, and boundless hospitality.
I wrote previously of some of our contacts who are working to educate and liberate the Dalits (Untouchables). On our last day, in New Delhi, we also met with some remarkable people working among the 500 million members of “Other Backward Castes.” (Imagine growing up with that identity.) Sunil Sardar, who has lived in the U.S. and is married to an American woman, spearheads this effort with an organization known as Truthseekers. He provides a home and center for various leaders of these castes from all faiths. We shared lunch with the leader of the Shepherds’ Caste, leader of 60 million, as well as the head of the two-million strong Farmer’s Union, a renowned author, and other leaders in the struggle. Amazingly, these leaders of millions would find it difficult to pay for a hotel room, and Sunil provides a place for them to stay as they lobby the government and plan strategy. One scholar told us, “You Americans are celebrating the election of a black man only 250 years after slavery. We are still waiting for liberation after 4,000 years of living under caste.”
Besides these stimulating meetings and tense days in Mumbai, we also managed to have some fun on this trip. On a trip to Toronto earlier this year, I met a young man who generously volunteered to show us around Kerala, a state in the far south of India, a place where the Apostle Thomas reportedly planted the first church and where, bizarrely, the Syrian Orthodox Church still has a major presence. (Our friend now attends Fuller Seminary, where he met language specialists who translated for him the Syriac prayers he had learned as a child and never understood!) We spent one day and night on a bamboo-sided houseboat cruising the backwaters, which gave us the experience of floating through everyday village life. We drank fresh coconut milk, saw bright blue kingfishers darting for food and white egrets standing like sentinels in emerald-green rice paddies. Women in brightly colored saris stood in the shallow water to do laundry by beating their clothes on rocks—it looks for all the world as if they’re trying to break the rocks—and bathing naked babies.
We also made a trip to a tiger preserve where we saw few animals but got to ride an elephant. This park, too, we toured by boat. Whenever a passenger spotted a wild pig or bison, all the Indian tourists jumped up and yelled, which explains why we saw few animals. On the way, we also passed through tea and rubber and plantations, as well as spice gardens that cultivate pepper, cardamom, and other spices. (Remember, Columbus discovered America by accident, seeking a route to India to acquire these spices, thus misnaming the Native Americans he found.)
You hear about “the new India,” and indeed India has changed much in the two decades since I last visited. But in India nothing goes away, the layers simply accumulate. So electric wires crisscross the major cities, and monkeys now use them as highways. Exotic cars now crowd the highways, but they too have to share them with the animals, including an occasional elephant or camel. Every conqueror has left a mark: the Aryans brought the Hindu caste system; the Moghuls brought Islam (India is the second largest Muslim nation, next to Indonesia); the Syrians, Portuguese, then British introduced Christianity. There are also millions of Buddhists, Sikhs, and Jains (who cover their mouths with a cloth to avoid inadvertently killing any living thing such as an insect.) As my Toronto friend said, “India is so diverse, with so many subcultures and more than 1,500 languages, that I have more in common with you than with many people from other parts of India.”
We also toured a few publishing companies. Kerala claims to be the first place to achieve 100 percent literacy, and indeed bookstores and newsstands proliferate. Even here the old and the new exist side by side. I saw four men walking in circles round and round a table to assemble the 32-page signatures that make up a book, which were then pressed by hand into a binder. Meanwhile women sat yoga-style on the floor “gumming” the backs of paper scraps in the absence of adhesive labels.
Ah, India. Longsuffering, magical, baffling, mysterious, chaotic—any adjective you can think of applies. We are glad we went on this trip, and come away inspired by the dedicated people we met doing important and wonderful work. And we’re very glad to be home, safe and healthy. Thank you all for your prayers and concern.Copyright © 2008 by Philip Yancey