Earlier this year, I went on a trip that altered my perspective towards life irreversibly. I’ve been wanting to write about it ever since I was back home, but I just couldn’t find the right words. I gave up after too many days of staring at this blank screen. I didn’t want this post to be ordinary, because my experience wasn’t. But it’s been four months, and I’ve finally realised that if I keep waiting for the right words, then my story will never be told. So here goes.
My uncle and aunt serve as missionaries at the rural areas of Jharkhand. Dad, being a veterinarian, has been visiting the villages for ten years now, educating the people on how to rear goats and cows and make a living out of selling milk and meat. So he has a good relationship with the other missionary families there. The first time I visited the Malto and Santhal tribes was in 2011, right after my board exams. So this April wasn’t my first time there, but it was my first time getting up-close. Back then, I was almost like a tourist trotting here and there, just grazing the surface, when there was so much more to be seen.
This trip was special for two reasons. One, this was my first ever father-daughter trip, just the two of us. Two, of course, all the things I saw and the way it tugged at my heartstrings.
Our typical day would involve us getting on a jeep and driving to a village perfectly hidden miles away on hills. On the way to some of these places, I couldn’t believe that the paths could actually lead to an inhabited area. That was how rough the paths were, some not paths at all, just stones. For these people to come all the way down to access schools, villages, or hospitals is just too tedious. So the missionaries go to them instead. They spend days, months, even years sometimes, surveying an area, learning the local dialect, finding out how many families live there, stay with them, teach them basic hygiene, tell them of God’s love, educate them about malaria and how that could be prevented, set up schools and dispensaries, build houses, toilets, etc. Just because I packed them all in a sentence doesn’t mean it’s easy.
Now a little about the people. I literally felt as though I travelled a 100 years into the past. Negligence has left them leading primitive lives, not knowing some of the very basic things that we as “civilised” humans know. The so called “toilets” under the Swachh Bharat scheme are pointless, just three walls, no door, no closets, serve as perfect hiding places for kids playing. Mortality rates are so high that death in a family is just another happening to them. So obviously, they are not as receptive as we would like them to be. It’s not like you could tell them to dress, drink clean water, eat better, and expect them to change in a day. Change takes generations! Missionaries from the South and other states have voluntarily chosen to stay there, sacrificing comforts, leaving their children behind, to go serve the people, who for all they know would never accept them. I met some women who have undergone as many as 10 surgeries because of the poor living conditions and the poor food, but still choose to go back after every single surgery because that is what they are called to do and that is how much they love the people they serve.
To meet their educational and spiritual needs, you need to first meet their physical needs. High up in hills, I see humble school buildings where kids are sent because they would be fed. I see glowing faces at the sight of food, as opposed to the faces we have when we trash something because we don’t like the taste. After meals, it’s study time. Thanks to several decades of efforts, some locals have graduated and come teach their own people. I see a lot of emotionless faces too, of parents who come to leave their children. It’s difficult to decipher what goes on in their mind. But I do occasionally catch glimpses of smiles on their faces when the missionaries greet them and enquire about their well being. I can see joy in places where I least expected to. With the very little they have, the locals are more than content and find time to laugh and play. And even with so many difficulties like finances, poor funding, sick parents, or homesick children, the missionaries too are joyful and are always looking for more ways to give a piece of themselves.
I also visited a couple of animal farms that dad had helped set up, now maintained by the missionaries and the local people together. Dad walks around examining the animals and making remarks in Tamil, while our uncles follow behind translating. The people are visibly thrilled to see new faces and greet us with warm and firm hand shakes. Schools are set up near the farms so that while parents work, children can get some lessons. I also saw the parents getting together to worship and sing, in voices so beautiful that my heart melted. Who doesn’t like roses in a desert, smiles in troubled faces?
I can go on and on about the poor living conditions, tell you heart wrenching stories of life and death, show you pictures even. While on one side, I’m deeply troubled by how when some of us are so far ahead, our other brothers and sisters do not have access to even their basic needs, on the other side I am surprised by how privileged men and women like you and me CHOOSE to leave behind their familiar ground to come here to serve, give, and, sometimes even die? Men as young as 26 years old have come here, carried ailing villagers to hospitals, saving their lives, only to die of Malaria later. It’s not easy for the family back home either. I met a little girl named Grace who will soon be moving to a hostel, as her parents decide to do more of mission work. She runs around her humble house, climbs on her father’s shoulder a million times a day, effortlessly switches between Hindi and the local tribal dialect and is full of cheer. It breaks my heart a little that she’ll have to leave all this soon. How much more will her parents be broken? They can just choose to go back to their hometown and pray and give money for missions. But they don’t. They give themselves instead. Why? And how?
Maybe this is what love really is. Maybe we’ve diluted the whole meaning of love, putting it in small shiny boxes to give away ONLY to our close circles, and to people who would give it back to us. The times I’ve cried over a friend’s betrayal or unreciprocated love now seem so trivial to me when I look at these men and women who lay down their lives consciously. The times I found forgiveness hard to give now seem so stupid to me. The times I’ve sulked over nothing, the times I’ve complained, the times I held a grudge for too long, all of it now look like absolute nonsense. No, I don’t mean to say I’m magically a better person now. But this experience does make so many troubles seem so small.
I’m reminded of the Good Samaritan story that Jesus narrates in response to the question “Who is my neighbour?”. These men and women, I believe, are living examples to this story. If only we could keep our eyes and arms wide open and not pass by our neighbour!
Am I my brother’s keeper? I most certainly am called to be.