After our very first trail building project in Daragaon in 2003, we were surprised to discover that a story about our work had been published in a local newspaper. While the Sunachari did deem the story noteworthy enough to put in print, the editor must have felt that tale of a group of American college students performing such a service in a remote village needed a bit of ‘masala’ for the Indian reader. The article claimed that the previous year I had fallen and broken my leg trekking on the said trail and returned determined to fix it. This, as is with most Indian media, was a flagarant falsehood. It was amusing at first but later it started to annoy me. I’d come with a heart to love and serve a community. The article degraded my intention into some kind of misguided vendatta against mother nature. I hadn’t been broken. I’d come to create something beautiful and the article seemed to rob that from me.
The closed door opened and B.T. Sir stepped out. He was as surprised to see me as I was to see him. After the brief customary exchange of questions about each other’s, and each other’s family’s, health, he said, “Now that you are no longer in Kaffer, us folks in the surrounding villages are wondering, ‘Is Ryan Sir’s love for our village dead?’ ”
After supressing a grimace and muttering a feeble reply a man came to the door and beckoned us in. The man led us to the front and the formal introduction and welcome was given. Fortunately, Puran was the one asked to take the stage. As his speech wrapped up he concluded with, “…and now that I’ve explained the main points of the project, perhaps our Ryan Sir has something to add.” I looked up to see the panel of officials sitting under the banner which read “Annual General Meeting”. A few minutes early I, the big out of place white guy, had lumbered into their closed door meeting. My assumption had been that we were going to meet over chai with a couple of leaders… not this. Walking up to the lectern, I tried to quickly formulate my impromptu speech. Looking out at the crowd the words began to flow from my heart instead of my mind. “I know that such a formal occasion requires that I speak in high Nepali. I should be delivering a speech like a Politician would… but today I’m going to talk to you all as I would a friend…” Next thing I knew, I was telling this crowd of strangers about Amanda’s miscarriage in 2008. Not only was my speaking style a breach of etiquette but the subject matter was perhaps a bit taboo for the given venue. I spoke about carrying her on a stretcher, about the lack of ambulance, about the lack of appropriate care at the government PHC and how it had affected me, how it had broken me.
By the time we moved on from Daragaon, we had built long stretches of trail with the local community. In fact we had created many beautiful things together… a school, a health center, a dairy. While it had been a wonderful season of achievement and creation, many things had broken down along the way. I had been so consumed in my work that I barely even saw it coming. The Christian community we had hoped to unify and inspire to community service had rejected us, decried our work as “unspiritual” and broken into smaller fractions. Thank God for our Hindu and Buddhist neighbors who rose to the occasion. But for them, our presence had created jealousy and intrigue in the village. The Food For Thought project was started in 2007 to empower the community in a time of famine. By the end of the famine it had created an unhealthy attitude of dependency in part of the community. This only dawned on me when Nitesh’s father said, “Things around here are running low again. Why don’t you go ahead and arrange some more work for us already.”
In 2008 a wave of political zealotry hit the area and turned long time co-workers into advisaries. Himal was a horseman and a member of the one small house church which actually appreciated and supported our presence. Caring for Himal’s kids during measles epidemic of 2005 was my first real foray in community health. We found his kids, at that time our students, sleeping under burlap sacks in absolute squalor with raging fevers. The oldest rocked the febrile baby while the parents attended the funeral of another child who had died in the epidemic. Over the years we poured out more love and attention on that family than any other but their situation seemed to spiral ever deeper into poverty. When Himal volunteered himself as a political pawn against our work, I abandoned hope.
Similarly and suddenly and in that same season, Amal (the pastor of the aforementioned church) abandoned his family, ran off with another woman, renounced his faith and sank into a drunken stupor. It seemed to me that some people and situtations are beyond redemption. The day before leaving the village I spoke with Amal’s broken son Sobhit. I told him of how I had lost my own father at a young age and what to expect in the years to come. On that crystal clear October day in the Himalayas, we stood on a mountain side and, throwing all convention aside, wept together. While 2008 did not erode my personal faith, my faith in the church was in tatters. I had not started working in Daragaon because of a broken leg, but I was certainly leaving with a limp. Many thought that I wouldn’t be back and like B.T. Sir that my “love for the village had died”.
It is no secret that I can be a bit lacrimose when speaking of my passions and convictions infront of crowds of almost any size. As per norm, my voice began to waiver during the Annual General Meeting of the Eastern Himalayan Council of Churches. Men do not cry in public here. Deeming another breach of etiquette one too many, I steadied myself and continued, “This is what prompted us to start an ambulance service in the hills. We didn’t want another mother or father to have to experience what we did. Many of the communities represented here no longer have to experience this thanks to our 3 ambulances servicing the area… but there is still a large task remaining. There needs be compassionate competent doctors at the government Primary Health Centers to care for these cases. Those doctors need to actually care about the communities they serve and stay in their posts. We are willing to send village students to medical school to fulfill this need, but we need your help to find them. Not just kids who have the grades but also the heart. This vision was born out of my painful experience and now we are laying this vision before you tonight.”
Despite countless reasons not to put faith in the church, I found myself laying my deepest desires at the feet of it again. I found myself willing to hope. A man in the congretation stood up and said, “Although I have not heard the opinion of the assembly here, I hope I can speak for them all in saying that we can and must support this endeavor.”
Binod and I sat in front of his new kitchen drinking tea and hashing out plans. There were staff changes at the school, finances to work out, a review of the books at the Health Center was needed and the timing for the community meeting on the new ambulance had to be set. While there were plenty of issues to attend to, I had to smile. Everything seemed to running the best it has ever been. It seemed that a decade of effort was starting to bear the fruit we’d always hoped for. The conversation broke off into a tangent as I recalled the time Nitesh’s father showed me the “blue diamond” he found in Sikkim. After a good laugh, Binod chimed in and said, “Oh, Ryan Sir… come down to the cellar and check out the new mushroom farm.”
I had been hearing about these mushrooms all the way from Sepi. Om, one of HIMserve’s staff, has really taken a liking to Daragaon. Along with everything else he’s been up to, he held a big training session on household mushroom farming. In Binod’s cellar there were 70 bags of rice straw hanging up with mushrooms bursting out the sides. “Ryan Sir we sell 40kg bags of potatoes for 500 rupees. For these we get 100 rupees per kilogram! It is barely any work at all and think how many more there will be in the warm wet months!”
It is more than just mushrooms that has been sucessful. HIMserve formed a “United Forum” to bring those bitterly divided churches together. Through giving teachings on the holistic gospel those isolated Christian communities are starting to reach out and serve their formerly off limits neighbors. Laying aside past wounds, I decided to go down to the little house church on Sunday. My hope was that my good friend Prakash would be preaching. I was disappointed to find out that it was none other than Himal who would be delivering the day’s message. Prepared for a long windy sermon of disconnected scriptures (tainted by my memories of his negligence as a father, community member and general human being) I plopped down on the floor Indian style.
The word for the day started off as per the prescribed style but at some point Himal changed his tone. Hearing my own name mentioned brought my attention back from a far flung train of thought. “…and people didn’t understand what he and Amanda Miss were doing. So many people opposed them. People said things they never heard. They didn’t understand at the time but now people are eating the fruits of the seeds they planted then. Only now are people beginning to understand why they came here. That what they did was good. Now those who opposed them wish they were back.”
Then I heard it. It was the same waiver of voice that I’d had at in front of the Annual General Meeting. There was the brief pause to regain composure, the same I had used. “They taught us that faith is not only to be lived in the spirit but also in the flesh. That we are to serve those around us. Many people said, ‘Ryan Sir’s love for the village is dead’ but after so many years he is still here. He could be back in America having an easy life but he is with us this morning…” and then the sermon continued on, longer than it should have, in the normal manner.
It was more than just words. Only then did I notice that he was dressed nicely, that he and his children were clean and looked well fed. Then several subconcious memories congealed, I’d seen him working for daily wages on my last several visits to the village. Himal has actually changed and near the end of his sermon a young man entered the small room and sat down beside me. It was Sobhit. I looked back to see his wife holding a fat, glowing estatic baby boy.
The year earlier, I’d done a prenatal exam on her. They were scared. They had lost their first child due to hospital negligence and just needed to know that everything was okay. And it was. On that baby’s face I could read a volume. The baby was well fed, immaculately clean and obviously cherished. Their home was happy and peaceful. Mere eye contact sent the child into joyous fits of laughter. After service I called Sobhit into the guest room where I was being served tea and wai wai. After a bit of small talk I asked him, “Do you remember what I said to you that day on the hill?”
“Do I remember? No one ever spoke to me like that. No one in the midst of my family’s crisis, not even a family member thought to reach out to me… to tell me what I’d face or how do deal with it. Sir, I remember that day like yesterday.”
“You had to walk the road I described didn’t you?”
“And now your life has been restored hasn’t it? I see it written on your baby’s face.”
“It has been restored and more. Let me tell you what I’ve learned.”
Rarely have I heard such a beautiful testimony. To think that the broken boy I left on that hillside over 5 years ago has turned into a mature, insightful and graceful young man, a father. To think that spending 15 minutes to share my own brokeness could have helped him through years of struggle and searching. “…and Sir here is the beautiful thing. My father had everything he needed. His Father had provided it. But he forgot how good his Father was and ran off to find happiness somewhere else. Now he is there and he’s got it but he’s not happy. When he is tired of eating pig slop, one day he’ll come to his senses and return to his Father like the prodigal son. God will be waiting with open arms for him. He’ll tell him, ‘I’ve been waiting for you all this time.’ Sir, sometimes I can start pitying my self. I see my friends sharing a meal with their family and they are all talking and laughing together. Then I look in my son’s face and I forget it all. I think, ‘now I’ve got the chance to do for him what I wanted my father to do for me… And I’m happy.”
“That’s how I feel about my sons as well… and now my daughter too.”
“On the day that you and Miss moved out of Daragaon nobody threw you a farewell party. The only person who put a scarf around your neck was Rupesh’s mother. When I saw that I thought, ‘If a politician comes here we drape him in scarves and then he returns to the city and does nothing for our village. How is it that no one is here now to say thanks?’ I’ll never forget that. It taught me that doing what is right and good doesn’t mean that we will be understood and loved. People didn’t understand then, but they are starting to… people are changing.”
Like the prenatal I’d performed on Sobhit’s wife the year before, shortly after arriving in Daragaon, I gave Nitesh’s young new wife a check up. The date was near, the baby was a good size with a good strong heart beat, the position was good and the mother looked healthy. After giving them a short lesson on birth signs I added, “…and if the baby comes while I’m here, feel free to call me or one of the healthworkers to attend it.”
As the young couple climbed the steps back up to their house, Kaushila, Sabita, Devi and I resumed sipping tea and looking over the books. Over 600 patients had come since my previous visit and they had saved over 12,000 rupees for maintenence of the Health Center. The school had saved over 30,000 rupees from the fees of the 75 students. Both are slowing growing towards self sufficiency. It was a beautiful day. The strong sun mixed with the cold winter air and swirled around us. The next morning after a quick cup of tea, as I was grabbing some tools to work on our old cabin, Silma ran up. “Nitesh Banga needs you to come to his house.”
“Oh boy, here we go.”
After grabbing the necessities at the health center I huffed up to the thatch sided kitchen. The discoverer of blue diamonds and demander of wages himself met me at the door. “It was good of you to come. We are very lucky that you would be here at this time. My young foolish son hasn’t saved up any money to take her to the hospital.”
“It’s my pleasure to help.”
“What are we to do Sir in this age when the young run off a elope before they have any wisdom or way to support a family? When we old ones linger on supporting them with the sweat of our brow?”
The labor progressed steadily throughout the morning. Silently, I worried that I’d get hung up at the delivery and miss the long planned ambulance meeting. Kausi and Sabi showed up to assist and I was glad to have them. The birth progressed without complications much to my relief. Now anyone who has attended a birth knows that it is a messy, difficult and painful business. At some point in every labor I’ve assisted the mother has cried out, “I can’t do this. I can’t! I’m going to die.” Even Aishna’s labor, which was ideal in almost every way, was no exception. Then comes the point in the midst of the blood and the pain and the desperation and the meconium that this tiny life appears. Despite the presence of almost every stimuli humans tend to avoid your heart cries out ‘how beautiful!’ The baby wails due its traumatic entry in the world and you think ‘how beautiful!’ Then the mother, who seconds early thought that this child would leave her broken for good, beholds her daughter and thinks “how beautiful!” She puts this new child, this new hope, to her breast and swears in her heart to nourish it. Who she was before is now broken; she can never go back… and that is not a bad thing.
After washing up, Nitesh served me tea in the thatched kitchen. Hoping that, like with Sobhit, my words might bring fruit years down the road I said, “Sit down bhai, I want to tell you something. You are no longer #1. You are #3 now. Now you are a father. You provide for that little one first, your wife next and only then think about yourself. You have been blessed today with the healthy birth of a new daughter from a healthy wife. Now it is your job to bless them. That will be your job from now on.”
After tea and rice and eggs and curry, I waddled down to the meeting. I wasn’t even late. A committee was formed. A foundation was laid. Five and a half years earlier I looked up at my wife on a burlap stretcher in the dark pouring rain and wished I had an ambulance. Now it is finally about to arrive.
It is easy to find beauty in the obvious places. Where I live and work is one of them. Someone once wrote, “You can drop your camera in the Himalayas and wind up with a breath taking shot.” But more and more I find the most beautiful things in the unexpected places. I come from a society that avoids suffering at all cost and fears death more than anything. I come from a place where people insist on fixing anything that is broken. If it can’t be fixed than it is worthless. If it cost more to fix than it is ‘worth’ then it is unredeemable. Living in India has taught me that not everything that is broken can be fixed. Not everything that is broken needs to be fixed. But, all things need to be redeemed. Many people doubt the existence of God because there is suffering in the world. Why would a perfect Creator make a broken world… or even one which could be broken? I never broke a thing on those old dangerous trails in Daragon but I helped build them, helped fix them anyways. Ironically, in walking those new safe village paths parts of me have been broken which don’t mend quite as easily as a leg. Again, that is not a bad thing. Brokeness doesn’t diminish the beauty of what we do, it gives birth to it.
On my way out of town I walked across several ridges to the village of Sirikhola. A brilliant young girl who I taught and consider a “daughter”, a girl whom we all have invested a lot in made a poor choice. Having passed Class 12 with flying colors, her parents had dug deep into shallow pockets again to send her college. She had qualified for the honors program. Only a few days into her studies she eloped with another young class mate and therefore dropped out as well. She quickly found that her in-laws were destitute alcoholics. Her parents asked her not to come home again. All of her dreams quickly dissolved before her eyes. Hearing that she had a baby boy, I decided to make a visit. Apart from her little sister, no one from the village or family had come to offer good wishes or gifts. When she heard I was coming she said, “La, Sir is coming to reprimand me for the stupid things I’ve done.”
Coming to the door of the tiny home she meekly emerged and invited me in. After tea and milk and curd and eggs and rice and curry, I waddled out to sit in the lawn beside her. I took the little boy in my arms and caressed him. Like that day with Sobhit, we sat in the crisp clear Himalayan air warmed by a subtropical sun. Like that day with Sobhit, I opened up my heart. “You may think I’m here to express my disappointment. I’m not. I’m here because I love you. I’m here to see my beautiful grandson.”
Her eyes dropped down and I pressed some rupees into her hand. “This money is not for you, it is for your child. You take it and hide it someplace. Don’t even tell your husband or in-laws. If this baby ever gets sick you get him the treatment he needs. Your family is not there to help you right now and your in-laws are in no place to… but this is my grandson. I may not be around to help when he needs it so I’m helping now.”
The girl began to sob and we sat in silence for quite a while.
“Sir, life here with this family is tough. I had no idea what I was doing. You even warned me about this last year… yet here I am. I don’t know what to do.”
“We will find a way for you to study again. It won’t be easy but your talent cannot be wasted. You are going to have to provide for this child and a Class 12 education doesn’t get you very far any more. I don’t know how this is going to work out. I don’t know the solution but don’t give up hope. For now, let me tell you what it means to be a parent…”
There is beauty to be found in everytime, place and situation. If, like a mother in the midst of labor, you cry out, “I can’t do this! I can’t. I’m going to die!” persevere and give a few more pushes. If you don’t see it now be patient… redemption is being born. Yes, birth is quite a traumatic experience but it delivers us from a constricted darkness into a open world of blinding light.
If you find it, share it. #findingthebeauty