June 13, 2004: Destination: Mumbai (Bombay), India: I had, quite honestly, lost track of the number of times I had visited India. Traveling to the populous subcontinent was always an adrenaline rush and always proved to be an exciting adventure, but I had to admit that India was not my most favorite place to visit.
I did recall my very first trip to the city of Madras on my way to Salem, India, and how it was expedient for God to perform a miracle to get me where I needed to go when no one showed up at the airport to meet me in the middle of the sweaty night.
I also recalled how my heart had been broken as I visited the tragic “rock breakers” in Rajahmundry, and how on that same trip some desperate evildoers had tried to smoke me out of my hotel room in order to rob me.
And there had been no way to forget my trip from the Kulu Valley in northern India over two scary Himalayan mountain passes to China’s border and watching our “jeep” tilting with the left front wheel high in the air, teetering dangerously, ready to roll down the face of the rocky precipice to a bottom that was barely visible from the site of our mishap.
Then, there was the vivid memory of being in Imphal and getting caught in a military vs. insurgent uprising in that part of the country, to the west of Bangladesh, where we struggled to get back to our hotel only to find it surrounded by military tanks and all efforts to lift us out of the mess by helicopter had failed.
Oh, my goodness! I did have some wild and crazy memories of India.
Perhaps one of the reasons I shuddered at the realization of my returning to India was the inner conflict I always experienced when I knew I had to again deal with the unjust and unholy caste system. Just maybe it remained as the most sinister form of repression and slavery still in the world. And the confusing thing was that almost no one ever spoke out against it.
Even Mahatma Gandhi, whose life was revered and his unorthodox practices admired and touted, never did speak out against, to my knowledge, the deplorable guise of servitude.
I had asked individuals of the Brahmans caste to please help me bring aid and assistance to the Dalits and untouchable folks. Their answers to me had been, “Why would you want us to help you do that? If we helped you help those people we would be doing them a most terrible disservice because, due to the things which they committed somewhere in their past, they are now in the position to learn their lesson in their present life. They have done something so bad in their past that they have screwed up their karma and have the present to learn their appropriate lessons. Should we endeavor to remove them from their lesson-learning positions we would be cheating them from that experience. And enhancing their karma without having learned those lessons during their present lives, they would be relegated to come back to another life just in order to learn the lessons and be able to move on up the ladder. If we helped those miserable people now they would not learn what they are supposed to learn in this lifetime, and it would take them another lifetime to fix their karma. Just leave them be.”
And my many trips into the culture had likewise allowed me to hear the logical defense from the higher caste individuals to the wretched untouchables. “Look, you don’t know the system. You want to be where we are one grand day in the future. Just do right and in due time you will arrive. Wouldn’t it be terrible if you upset the system? The glorious position that I now enjoy would not be even available to you in a future life. Just be patient and stay the course.”
I had studied the drivers of those huge TATA trucks on the back roads and highways of India. In my opinion, the most dangerous place to be in India was the open highway or winding mountain roads. In my travels I had seen so many horrific traffic accidents where the bodies of people would be strewn like blood-soaked confetti after a ticker-tape parade. I witnessed where one TATA truck loaded with steel had simply sheared off the top of a crowded public bus like the action of opening up a can of sardines. I had seen the results of three TATA trucks racing side by side around a blind curve in the highway only to plow into ox carts, bike riders, and pedestrians who had no chance to scramble or escape.
I had observed that most TATA truck drivers and bus drivers were of the Dalit caste or were untouchables. Walking down the road or in their communities they were powerless. But once behind the steering wheel of the massive vehicle they experienced a power otherwise never known to them. They would mix that feeling of power and pent-up vengeance with the strange reality that the only thing they would have to lose would be their wretched life. This produced a situation much like a live hand grenade in mid-air with the pin already pulled. They could exert intimidating and lethal power and the only thing possible for them to lose would be their miserable life, granted, with the weird possibility of dying and coming back into a higher caste position.
I had always found India to be such an interesting study of land, people, religion, culture, strata, marriages, and of course, medical opportunities. It was a disturbing model of pathos vs. privilege.
If you had caste status and money you could purchase healthcare and medical procedures equivalent to New York City. If you were one without privilege and you were a woman, you would probably be expected to give birth to your child at a local healthcare center much like I had visited and photographed, where, instead of a delivery table or a bed available, there were pieces of sheet metal lined up against a wall. A concrete block under the head of the bed would be placed just a bit higher than the concrete block under the foot of the piece of sheet metal. Near the middle there would be a hole made by a cutting torch with a plastic bucket resting under it.
If you went there in labor you were laid upon the piece of slanted sheet metal and left until you delivered your baby. A caregiver would take the baby, cut the umbilical cord, and hand the baby back to you. As soon as you had strength to get up and go home you would take your baby and go home on foot or in a scooter taxi. Once you had left, the caregiver would return to the piece of sheet metal, scrape the placenta through the hole and into the plastic bucket and douse the sheet metal with a bucket of clean water to prepare for the next mother.
As I prepared to once again return to the vast country of India, I couldn’t help but wonder what I would observe and experience on the trip. I knew that my life would not be the same when I returned to my home, because it never had been the same following any of my trips there.
And just why was I returning to India? You guessed it … many more requests had flooded our office. Institutions in India reached out to Project C.U.R.E. to supply donated medical goods. For the current trip I intended to focus on requests from two of our international partners, Nazarene Compassionate Mission (NCM), and the Presbyterian group, Missionary Benevolent Foundation (MBF). I had worked with both groups before in other parts of the world but it would be my first time performing studies for each in India.
The weeks preceding the scheduled trip had been a bit hectic. Upon my return from Bogotá, Colombia, our whole family of kids and grandkids had joined Anna Marie and me to travel to Nampa, Idaho, in order to celebrate Anna Marie’s father’s 100th birthday.
Keller Johnson had lived a wonderful life spanning a time in history that had seen remarkable, if not unbelievable, changes. When he started out there were no highways, cars, telephones, or airplanes. He had seen so much change in his lifetime. But at the age of 100 he still was in terrific health. The only medication he was taking at the time of his birthday party was an occasional aspirin.
Keller was still as sharp as a tack and could tell you the price of carrot seeds, which he had grown and sold for custom cultivation twenty to thirty years before. He could also give you his opinion on the current international and national political and economic affairs. In fact, he still held a current driver’s license at the time of his 100th birthday. He had become an inspiration to all of us and had been a wonderful father to Anna Marie and father-in-law to me. Keller loved Project C.U.R.E.
Next Week: Destination Mumbai (Bombay)