The Gurkha wades across a river and tears down the back roads of a tea estate. On a mission, nothing blocks its path. A local contact leads us on. I downshift through the gears and finally skid to a stop in the sand. My comrade and I exit the vehicle and enter the house in question. Inside the hovel (made of metal scrap and rotten plank) our pupils dilate in the darkness to size up the scenario. It is a not a pretty sight. Nearby a green, white and yellow flag flutters in the wind. It is the symbol of an independent “Gorkhaland”.
An old man shakily rises to his feet. His elderly wife rolls to her side and moans. As if in exaggerated slow motion their hands come together before their faces in greeting. “Welcome. Come in. Thank you for coming.”
What is a Gurkha? In the early 1800’s the East India Company waged a war against the Kingdom of Gorkha (which later expanded into present day Nepal). Despite their technical superiority, highly trained troops and economic advantage, the British were beaten back time and time again by the inhabitants of the hills. Possessing little more than curved machetes called khukuri, stout mountain legs and a knowledge of the land… the proverbial David conquered the giant. The British officers were impressed with the strength, tenacity and bravery of these men defended their homeland. As a result, the Company eventually signed a peace treaty with the Gurkhas and originally recruited them as mercenaries. Gurkha regiments remain the most elite troops in the Indian and British military to this day.
What is a mercenary? The standard definition is a person who takes part in an armed conflict motivated by the desire for private gain. A mercenary sheds his blood for another… at a price. But after independence, the Indian and Nepali Gurkha regiments were fully patriated. The Gurkhas are a source of intense ethnic pride for the Nepalese. They have come to be so by embodying the incredible qualities of an amazing people.
“Gurkha” is also the name of a vehicle recently released in India. It is a 4X4 with dual locking differentials, a snorkel and skid plates. The brochure claims that it is “Built For War” but my partner and I have come in peace. If we are fighting anything, it is poverty and indifference. Assembled is a group of local pastors from the local ‘United Forum’. Their hope is for us to take the couple away and deposit them in an Ashram. After a check-up and evaluation I explain to them the options.
“He has had a tapeworm for over 10 years and is very weak. Looks like there is a history of heart problems as well. She has a host of problems. She hasn’t passed stool or urine in almost 2 weeks. I think her distended bowels are pressing on her back injury aggravating the paralysis. Her blood is extremely thin. This will take some time.”
The men look back and forth at each other, “So will they be able to stay at Jesu Ashram… for good?”
“No. The Father has made it clear that they do not have the resources for that.”
Their faces droop. They were hoping the problem would simply disappear.
“We will take them for treatment but there is to be an agreement. I understand that Manasey used to be a Pastor. He and Hanna have no children. As a result of their years of service they have no pension, no retirement and no one to care for them. Now you are all pastors are you not?”
“Have you considered that this could be you one day?”
“Now you teach your congregations that one should do unto their neighbor as you would have done unto themselves, do you not? Here is your neighbor and you will be in his shoes one day if you continue in your current vocation. What will you want when that day comes? The reason that these two are sick is that they have been living in filth and have been undernourished for years. If we take them to the hospital, go to great trouble and expense, if they recover and then return to this situation… they will be sick again in a month. What is the point? We will take them and pay for their treatment but you must build them a new house. Getting together to clap hands and sing is great… but if we do not have love for our neighbor then our religion is worthless and meaningless. If that is the case then we are all already poorer than these two.”
These days, the Indian Gurkha Regiments now come mostly come from the Darjeeling District instead of Nepal. They are patriots instead of mercenaries. Despite this, the mercenary mentality still lives on in civilian life, particularly on one dark battlefield. Health promotion is a war against pathogens, toxins, contaminants, ignorance, obstacles and inequalities. In this arena, the patriots are few and ill equipped. The best trained seek out private practices to advance their careers. These mercenaries serve not to protect the citizens of their nation but instead for personal gain. In India, private healthcare has exploded in the last ten years. Elite hospitals spring up in the shadow of crumbling public services. The mercenary doctors are not nearly as concerned with winning the war… as profiting from the battle. Every roadside shop in the city seems to have a doctor’s name painted on the outside of it as well as overpriced substandard solutions on the inside. At the same time, there are thousands of vacant posts in West Bengal’s Public Health Services.
Those invited to the ambulance meeting could have been the hill hardy peasants with the sinewy legs encountered by the British. Some walked hours to attend. They circled around the vehicle noting the mysterious ‘snorkel’ and pointing out the flying khukuri which adorned each side of it. Of course the 10:30am meeting didn’t get rolling until around 12:00pm, ahh… Indian Standard Time. The initial speeches went longer than they should have and I wondered if folks would start losing interest. Nearly 100 men sat patiently… more patiently than I. About to go for a stroll and stretch my legs, something grabbed my attention.
One of my former neighbors from the village was giving his speech. I’d had a mixed history with him. While he was always courtesy to my face, I was fully aware of the political games he had played behind our backs throughout the years. I’d cringed when he and a couple of similar men were appointed to the Ambulance Committee back in January. Was he going to try to embezzle money from the vehicle? Was he using it to curry favor with the public? What was he up to? Then I heard him say, ‘Over the years political parties have come and gone. Each one makes promises and eventually fades away when it is apparent they won’t fulfill them. How many times have we heard it? How many times? We’ve heard the big wigs promise us roads, electricity and ambulances… where are they? And look now we have something! An ambulance and not just any ambulance? Why? How? Because one person took the time to care. As we all can see, he is not from here! But he is the one to do for our country what it should have done for itself. Where and when will we begin? ”
Sitting in shock, I started taking stock of the members of the committee and the audience. Those who worked with us in the early days were mostly absent. Those whom I’d written off as mercenaries… simply fighting for their personal gain… were in attendance. Not only were they there but they were the ones doing the hard work. Eventually it was time for my speech. Adjusting my khada and a garland of marigolds, I began, “I want to talk to you about 3 things… why, how and what. First why. I don’t have to explain to you why we need this ambulance. You’ve all carried out your family members on stretchers. You all know someone who has died trying to get to the hospital. I remember many of those cases myself and I felt pity for them. But then in 2008, I had to carry my own wife on a dark night through the rain. Only a week or so later I did the same for my son during a severe asthma attack. I wished there were an ambulance both times. I wished there was an oxygen tank. It was then that my pity transformed into compassion. Since, I’ve been planning and waiting to bring this region an excellent ambulance. The road is being built. The community has gathered today. It’s time.
“So how, how did this vehicle come here today? It is not from me. I don’t personally have the resources. You’ve seen foreigners come and go. They’ve built trails, volunteered at the school and worked on the Health Center. You probably thought, ‘Oh they came, had an experience, left for home and have forgotten us.’ They haven’t forgotten your needs, your village nor your hospitality. Those people sacrificed their own pay to send you this ambulance. You are not forgotten. We’ve been working so long to make this happen. As you can see this vehicle is called the ‘Gurkha’ and I want to tell you something amazing. It is the first one to enter West Bengal. The citizens of the farthest flung corner of the State now have a vehicle that people in the capitol Kolkata (Calcutta) haven’t even gotten yet. And it should be like that because this vehicle is a Gurkha and this is Gorkhaland after all! The Gurkhas have spent decades protecting the lives of the rest of India. Now it is time for a Gurkha to protect the lives of the Gorkhas!
“Now the ‘what’. What do we have to do to ensure that this vehicle runs for years to come and brings you the service you need? THAT is why you’ve been called here today….”
As the meeting progressed, rich and poor alike came up and placed 100 rupee notes on the table as a contribution to the Ambulance Support Fund. We made plans for a permanent garage and discussed training options for the staff. One item on the agenda was road repairs, but providence marked it off the list. The government had sent a bulldozer that very week to make the road passable to the upper villages. Everything was coming together.
Soon after returning to Siliguri, I made a trip out to visit Manasey and Hanna who were still admitted at Navjeevan Hospital. Hanna was in pretty bad shape but her husband seemed to be improving. While her excretory system was finally working again, she was severely anemic, diabetic and had a rapidly developing dental abscess. The Doctors sent me out to collect two units of blood. In India, hospitals rarely have integrated blood banks. The normal protocols require that you arrange an on the spot donor for each unit required. Back at the office, the staff was just finishing up a day long training on child protection. I tried to wait patiently as things wrapped up. Eventually, I requested that someone would come with me to donate for Hanna. Amardeep quickly rose to the occasion. Neither of our blood types matched the patient’s but we could barter for the right group… blood for blood.
They stopped taking my donations back in America years ago. I’ll never forget the look on the attendant’s face after she asked if I’d traveled overseas recently. Guess my blood isn’t true blue enough for my fellow citizens anymore… but it will still do the trick in my adopted homeland. As my life drained into the plastic bag, I began to think about mercenaries again. What a difference the heart makes. One will gladly give for free what another must be paid to sacrifice. It is a matter of what’s in the heart. It is a matter of what one loves. It is a matter of priority… the greater good or personal gain. What’s in one’s blood makes all the difference. Once our donations were complete I slid 1,300 rupees across the counter. The fee covers the cost of testing for deadly communicable and tropical diseases. They needed to know if what was flowing in our veins was pure before they could use it to restore the life of another.
The Nepalese have long been a sought after people. The men fought on behalf of the pampered British elite. The women plucked the tea used in their afternoon deck parties. In the new global economy, unfortunately, not much has changed. Over 400 Nepali men have died this year at the World Cup Stadium construction site in Qatar. Nepali women are one of the most highly ‘trafficked’ in South Asia, forced to sell their labor, their bodies and their love for a pittance. I once heard that 7-8 corpses arrive at Tribhuvan International Airport every day. Why are these people preferred on the construction sites of the Middle East and in brothels as far flung as in Sudan? The Nepalese are one of the toughest, most jovial, hardy, resilient and hospitable people groups on the planet. There are a shortage of folks in the world bearing these qualities which makes them a hot commodity.
British officer Sir Ralph Lilley Turner put it best.
“As I write these last words, my thoughts return to you who were my comrades, the stubborn and indomitable peasants of Nepal. Once more I hear the laughter with which you greeted every hardship. Once more I see you in your bivouacs or about your fires, on forced march or in the trenches, now shivering with wet and cold, now scorched by a pitiless and burning sun. Uncomplaining you endure hunger and thirst and wounds; and at the last your unwavering lines disappear into the smoke and wrath of battle. Bravest of the brave, most generous of the generous, never had a country more faithful friends than you.”
So here my question for the Darjeeling Hills. What are you fighting for? Where has the spirit of 1816 gone when lightly armed, untrained peasants beat back the most elite military on the planet? Why are the public hospitals of the Darjeeling District vacant when signboards bearing the name of Sharma and Sherpa hang in the clinics of Delhi, Mumbai, Melbourne and Denver? Once you were able to disappear into the smoke and wrath of battle on a foreign battlefield without flinching. How is it now that the educated and skilled among you find it difficult to even venture back into the villages which gave birth to you? The Gurkha regiments of India have been patriated… but when will the hearts of the public be? I know the Nepali people as a incomparably strong, friendly and generous group in their own homes and villages. When will this communal strength spill over into broader public life?
For the last year I’ve been working on turning a vision into a reality. I believe that there are still many who are willing to fight for their villages. I’ve seen those in action who are willing to risk their necks and shed their blood for the ones they love. There are still many youth left who would rather love their neighbor than seek their fortunes abroad. In November, I had the distinct pleasure of interviewing several such individuals for the Dr. Paul Brand Medical Scholarship. I was impressed by their motivation and vision to bring health to their underdeveloped District. These students have hearts to transform the rural hospitals of this region but they do not have the resources to access the education they need to make it happen. Of this batch, we have selected 5 potential candidates for an Entrance Examination prep course. Each year for the next 5 years, we will sponsor the top performing candidate for M.B.B.S. studies.
While I was visiting a progressive community health project in the state of Orissa, word came that Hanna Rai had passed away in the hospital. At times like these I tend to ask myself, “Is it worth it? Is it really worth it? Does my effort really change anything?” and was afraid that the momentum we had generated in her village would grind to a halt.
Back in Lankapara, the formally inactive United Forum managed the arrangements for her funeral. Neighbors who had previously fallen through the cracks has been made visible. The doors to a church bound within its four narrow walls have been opened. Hanna’s husband Manasey made a full recovery and time will tell if they will stick to their commitment to build the widower a new home. Hanna got to end her days in dignity instead of expiring in disgrace. Is it worth giving one’s blood for another if they are just going to die anyways? Well, if that is the case then every patriot in history has shed his or her blood in vain… for every citizen passes on one day. This is surely not the case.
I’ve spent my entire adult life fighting for this region through community development and health promotion projects. At times it has felt like treating the symptoms instead of eliminating the source of the illness. At the heart of every problem there is someone who has chosen to live on mercenary terms, at the expense of others. In the end there is a simple criteria which defines us. What is the nature of the blood pulsing through our veins? Have we fought for personal gain or the public good? Have we loved ourselves or loved our neighbors as ourselves? If the inhabitants of the Darjeeling Hills want to be truly free and independent, the revolution must start in the heart and not by waving flags. For this is the true source of community development, public health, equality, sustainability, justice and freedom. When the public rediscovers the strength, courage and selflessness it possessed nearly 200 years ago… broad, true and lasting change follow close behind. True lasting change cannot not come from governments, NGO’s, protracted philanthropy or foreign lands. It must come from within. When the change comes from within, the people of the Darjeeling Hills will never again have to go without.
“Bravest of the brave, most generous of the generous, never had a country more faithful friends than you.”