The Prophet's Way: India 1993 and 1996
An excerpt from the book.
Do not wait for leaders; do it alone, person to person.
When many Americans think of India they picture a world full of holy men, honoring life so much that they won’t eat beef. This is, after all, the origin of the expression "sacred cow."
But visiting India, like Colombia, showed me the truth of the message of the Kogi. Each country has a time-honored heritage of an older culture, but as younger Western values have run wild across the country, the older culture values have become hidden in mountaintop retreats or monasteries, and poverty and disease have exploded where the younger culture has taken over.
My trips to India solidified my certainty that we are, globally, on the wrong path and that only a change in consciousness and culture can save us.
My trip to India in 1993 was my second for Salem. The first time had been back in 1980, when an Indian businessman offered to donate land to Salem for a children’s village, and Horst Von Heyer and I went to Bombay to see what could be done. The project ended up hopelessly tangled up in red tape, however, and we had to forego the program.
Von Heyer and I had left India quite unhappy that we’d been unable to organize a Salem program there, because, we learned, the plight of orphans in India is particularly brutal (as in much of the Third World, particularly in tourist areas). Often they are taken by organized criminal gangs who will maim them—cutting off an arm or leg, or gouging out an eye—and then put them onto the street to beg. Another problem is with child slaves, most often in the silk and textile industries, but also in prostitution and as domestic servants. Orphans are bought and sold for this work, and even children of poor families often end up in these situations as they are given as "security" for small "loans" which will, of course, never be repaid.
Thirteen years after my first trip to India, a small group of Swiss families contacted Herr Müller. They’d been supporting an orphanage for many years in the interior of India, run by a local Lutheran minister, Rev. Yesu Ratnam. They were now getting old enough (in their 80s) that they were concerned about the future fate of the orphanage if anything were to happen to them. Would Salem consider taking over the project, they asked?
Since nobody had visited the orphanage in years to make sure it was legitimate and the money was being used appropriately, Herr Müller told them he’d only consider it after "somebody from Salem" had gone there to check the program out and audit their books. (Phony charities are also a problem around the world, and siphon off many well-meant dollars merely to enrich the people who operate them.) It turned out the "somebody" he had in mind was me, and he called me the day after they contacted him. Fortunately, at the time my business was doing well enough that I could afford to go, and to pay for the trip.
I arrived in Bombay on a hot August evening and took a taxi from the airport to the Taj Intercontinental hotel, one of the hotels in the city which cater to a foreign business clientele, so you know the water is purified and the food well-cooked. In the lobby there were several men from one of the middle-eastern Arab countries sitting in a large area covered with Persian rugs and expensive furniture. Obsequious Indian men brought them teenage girls, one at a time, and as I checked in I watched the Arabs inspect the girls as if they were inspecting bits of meat in a market. Most were dismissed with the flick of a hand: when one was chosen, the man would head to the elevator with several of his underlings, their long white robes flowing; the girl and her keeper would follow a few discreet minutes later.
After checking in, I went outside and asked a taxi driver how much it would cost for a quick tour of Bombay. It was about 1 a.m., but I was wide awake with jet-lag. "You want girl?" he asked. "No," I said. Only I’d like to drive around the various interesting sights in town. I must leave very early in the morning.
He took me first to a series of government buildings. All were dirty and the streets everywhere were filled with sleeping people: sleeping on rags, on box bits, on the bare cement. Men, women, children. The streets stunk of human excrement and the exhaust from cars and trucks which invariably sprayed out thick gray or black exhaust. Then we drove past a few museums … all also populated by street-sleeping people. It all was depressing: you could see that many of these buildings, when built 50 to 200 years ago, were palatial and beautiful structures. Now they were decaying remnants of a desperate and overpopulated society.
On the way back to the hotel, he took it upon himself to make one last sales pitch and drove me through the "red light" district (my guess is that taxi drivers make a commission). This was particularly depressing. Cars and taxis cruised slowly along back streets, while hundreds of girls of all sizes and ages stood in the open doorways of little five-by-eight-foot rooms. The air hung heavy with the smell of raw sewage and sweat, the girls talked among themselves or stood sullenly, men in rags ran among the cars soliciting customers. "There is much disease here," the driver said. "But the girls are only one hundred rupees." That’s about three dollars, US. I asked him to return me directly to the hotel, where I drank a beer to try to get the smell of the area out of my nostrils and went to sleep.
Early the next morning, I took a taxi to the domestic Bombay airport and picked up a flight on a local charter line called East West. After the interminable waits in the airport, continually swatting mosquitoes, I remembered that I’d forgotten to get any quinine (to prevent malaria), and found a pharmacy and picked up some tablets, taking one with some bottled water. After a few hours, the oft-delayed flight left for Hyderabad, a city in the interior or India.
In Hyderabad, I took a taxi to the Oberoi hotel, another business hotel with safe food and water, and asked the customer relations woman at the counter how to get to Dowlaiswaram. She’d never heard of it, and we couldn’t find it on any maps, but she did check the train schedule and found out that the next morning there was a 6:45am train that went directly from Hyderabad to Rajamundri, which seemed to be in the area I was looking for. She sent a boy to the train station and secured me a first-class ticket for the twelve-hour ride. The cost was about US$10.
The Train to Dowlaiswaram
The next morning, at 5 a.m., I headed to the train station. It was a riot of people, lepers begging, hawkers selling tea and coffee from jugs they carried on their backs, cleaning the used cups with a spit and a wipe on their shirts. The tracks smelled like a sewer: the train car toilets empty directly onto the rails. Along the side of the train station was a little shanty-town of shacks made of corrugated asbestos, tar-paper, scraps of cardboard and rags. Dogs and naked children competed for scraps as they scavenged among the piles of trash near the tracks.
The trains themselves were a startling sight. The insides had wooden benches and floors, covered to overflowing with people, who stood down the center aisles, on all the benches, and even hung out the doors as the cars filled-up. The smell, mostly of urine and body odor, but also of incense and tea, was overpowering. The train cars had once been painted a military green or brown, and a few were orange, but the paint had long-ago become so covered with filth that they looked like refugees from some late-19th-century dump.
I walked along from car to car, noticing that on the outside of the "sleeper" and "first-class" cars, there were pieces of paper with lists of names on them. I finally found mine, after two very pleasant businessmen stopped me to ask if I needed help (which help I accepted), and entered the car.
Although "first class," the car was covered with dirt and black greasy grime. There were four fans in the ceiling, and the two windows were open to the flies and mosquitoes and sounds outside, with beggars hands occasionally sticking in. As a small consolation, there were horizontal steel bars on the windows, at about three-inch intervals.
The compartment had four "seats," each a long plastic-covered bench. Two were at normal sitting level, and two hung from the ceiling. Each small compartment held four people, so, with the agreement of my compartment-mates, I took one of the upper benches, tossed up my carry-on bag and jacket, pulled out a book I’d picked up at the hotel, and settled in to read. My three companions were all apparently businessmen, who would take this train as far as Rajamundri. Although curious about what I was doing on the train and why I was going to Rajamundri (I was the only non-Indian I’d seen among all the thousands of people in the train station: I told them, as I always do, that I was a "tourist, visiting a friend"), they were very circumspect when asked what they did for a living, but, it turned out, two were businessmen and one was a physician. After the train left, the one of the three who was dressed in a business suit—a strikingly handsome man in his 50s with a handlebar mustache and an uncanny resemblance to Omar Sharif—undressed and put on a traditional Indian wraparound in two pieces, one around his waist and one around his chest. Even so dressed, he carried an aura of great dignity.
After I finished my book, one of my companions offered me the Times of India. It was both an insight into the soul of India, and also into what an entire world could be like if it was desperately overpopulated and ravaged by poverty. I read a story with the dateline of Hyderabad, my destination:
"Viral fever and other water-borne diseases are sweeping throughout the state since the past couple of weeks. These include influenza and cholera, jaundice, Japanese encephalitis, measles, typhoid, gastroenteritis, and TB. Government hospitals, private nursing homes, and clinics in the city and other parts of the State have been flooded with hundreds of cases . . . the country of Pakistan is currently under water, and thousands of people a day are dying in this region from their homes and villages being swept away, and from the water-borne diseases."
I put down the paper and took a short walk through the train car.
I discovered that the toilets on the train were "not western," meaning they were just a hole in the floor of the "latrine room," with a small spigot of water next to them. After squatting and using the hole, which looked down onto the tracks, one was expected to use one’s hand to clean oneself, then to press up against the water-nozzle to produce a trickle of train-water to clean the hand. I shuddered, and left the room as quickly as possible.
Around midday, my three traveling companions each produced from their bags containers of rice and curry with small bits of vegetable. It smelled quite appetizing, but each ate with his fingers. After a few dripping mouthfuls and licked fingers, each in turn offered me a bite, but I passed, and took a few swigs of my bottled water. Today would be a fasting day, I decided.
Along the way, the countryside was mostly rice-paddies, being farmed by families standing in the knee-deep water planting or pulling rice bundles. Water-buffalo were a common sight, as were large Brahmin cows. The countryside was lush and green, with large flatlands punctuated by rocky hills about 500 feet high and running like spines along into the distance. The sky was cloudy all day with the promise of Monsoon rain, but it didn’t rain and the air blowing into the car through the open windows must have reached around 100 during midday.
When we arrived in Rajamundri, I stepped off the train, thinking that now was the time to begin my inquiries. As I was looking for a local policeman or train official who might have heard of the supposedly nearby town of Dowlaiswaram, a group of a half-dozen young men and an equal number of barefoot boys ran up to me. Assuming they were beggars, I first looked away, but the one in front said, "Thomas C. Hartmann?"
"Yes, that’s me."
They all began to applaud and the children threw garlands of fresh flowers around my neck. "Welcome, welcome!" the young man said.
"Are you Reverend Yesu Ratnam?" I asked.
"No," the man said. "I am Devadanam. The director, Ratnam, went to Hyderabad to meet you."
I’d sent a telegram a week before my departure, telling Ratnam that I would be in Hyderabad at the Oberio, but had never received a reply, so I assumed he hadn’t gotten my telegram. Apparently, though, he had, and now the unfortunate man had spent the money and time to take an all-night train to Hyderabad to pick me up and accompany me here. "I’m very sorry I missed him," I said.
Devadanam shrugged. "He went with Emmanual, the director of the seminary school here. You did not get our telegram?"
I shook my head.
Devadanam produced a receipt for the telegram, which had my correct home address. "It went out before the first of the month. I don’t understand. We thought you had received it. The telegram company said you had."
"I’m sorry," was all I could say.
Devadanam smiled. "Don’t worry. Emmanual and Ratnam arrive in one hour on the next train. They missed you in Hyderabad by one hour, so they hired a car to try to beat the train to the next town, but, unfortunately and unusually, the train was on time, so they missed you there by ten minutes. So they called here to the seminary and told me to meet you, and they took the next train."
Six of us crowded into a car that looked like it had been built before World War II, and we chugged our way to the Garland Hotel, the newest hotel in the city of Rajamundri. "Vegetarian Hotel" it said outside, which in India is not at all uncommon. I was given a first-class room, meaning it had an air conditioner. The bellboy sprayed perfume on the dirty and blood-stained sheets and pillow-case, and in the bathroom, which was an Indian-style hole in the floor with water bucket beside. I closed the windows and spent the next half hour talking with my hosts while they engaged in the sport of trying to kill the many mosquitoes which infested the room. Later, I discovered that most of the mosquitoes were coming up out of the toilet, and if I just kept the bathroom door closed, the sleeping room would stay relatively mosquito-free.
Ratnam and Emmanual arrived after an hour or two, and we ordered up a vegetarian curry and vegetable cutlets for dinner. As there was no restaurant in this "vegetarian hotel," the bellboy would run outside and find what we wanted from some local street vendor, then bring it back to the room.
Ratnam was a thin, intense man with an honest, friendly smile and a direct approach. I would have guessed his age at around thirty, although I could be off by five years in either direction. He spoke with a quiet sincerity, and wasn’t at all the "self-righteous" type that I have so often met in mission work, and who seem so full of their own self-importance. He struck me as a truly humble and very hard-working man.
Over dinner, my hosts explained their efforts to meet me. I had put them through considerable expense and difficulty, although they were most gracious about it and only told it as a "funny" story. I later learned that the money they had, because of the telegram’s failure to reach me, wasted on the train trip was an entire month’s budget to feed thirty of their orphaned children.
Arriving at Dowlaiswaram
The next morning they picked me up and we drove to Dowlaiswaram along a broken and potholed "road" through the rural countryside. We came to a compound about an acre in size, surrounded by a brick wall, and with an entrance arch. Children and adults created a path a hundred feet long, and put garlands around my neck and threw rose petals on me and in front of me. "In India, we have a saying," Ratnam explained when he noticed my embarrassment. "The guest is God. And so, we always must treat our guest as if he were God."
I later learned that Ratnam had paid for my hotel room, my meals and beers, and even bought my return train ticket himself. When I tried to reimburse this very poor man, he said, "Absolutely not." It would be very bad for a guest to have to pay for his being a guest, he explained emphatically, and he would only accept money from me if it were a gift given for his work in God’s name, and not for my trip. I tried to give him money that way, but he wouldn’t accept it. "I will not take your money now," he said. "You are my guest." Their hospitality and grace made me uncomfortably aware of how arrogant my own culture is.
I walked up to the front of a building about 60 feet long and 25 feet wide. There was a ribbon across it, and Ratnam asked me to cut it. "It is our new dining hall and kitchen facility, donated by our friends in Switzerland, and they said that we must wait for your arrival to dedicate it in God’s name before we use it." I straightened my shoulders and cut the ribbon to cheers from the hundred or so adults and children there.
Inside, Emmanual (who, in his 60s, was the senior director of a nearby Lutheran seminary, and a Lutheran minister: Ratnam had been one of his students), Ratnam, two of the teachers, and I sat at the front of the long room, while everybody else came in and sat on the floor in front of us. Ratnam gave a speech welcoming me, which he read from a prepared text, and told me about their work.
There were 30 orphans living in the compound. They stood up, little girls and boys from around 5 to about 12 years old, expectant, smiling, innocent faces. There were 35 local children whose families were destitute or homeless, and these children lived or studied and ate here. There about 20 or 30 widows living there, old women who sat to one side of the room, many very elderly and feeble, and about a dozen "churchmen," men in their 20s to 40s who went to local villages to teach literacy, sanitation, feed people, and, of course, spread the word of God.
"Because this is officially a Hindu country," Ratnam told me later, "we are not eligible to receive any assistance whatsoever from the government. This is a government with an official religion, unlike the United States, and so for us to be Christians here, we have a somewhat difficult time."
Emmanual said a few words welcoming me and telling everybody what a great work he thought Ratnam was doing, and Ratnam’s wife and three young children were introduced to me.
Then they asked me to say a few words. I quoted from the Bible the story of when the young children came to Jesus and the adults tried to shoo them away, and told the children that they were the most important of all of us, and the most special in the eyes of God. They smiled proudly. I told the widows and "churchmen" that I would do whatever I could to help them, and they thanked me. And then I said a prayer of blessing that Herr Müller taught me in Hebrew, telling them that they were the words that Jesus probably sometimes used to pray. Finally, since they’d all sat through about a half-hour of other people’s speeches (and about five minutes of mine), I told them that if I were them I’d rather be outside playing than sitting inside listening to some strange fellow talk on and on, so I was finished.
Then Ratnam produced a handful of small envelopes, each with a name on it. The paper was thin enough that I could see that each envelope contained a 100 Rupee note (about US$3), and asked me to call out the names and hand out the envelopes. They were for the widows. I called the names, handed them the envelopes as they came up one by one, saying a silent prayer for each as I handed her the envelope. "It is their monthly living stipend," Ratnam told me, when he thanked me for distributing the money.
After this ceremony, we went to the front porch of the girls’ dormitory. It’s across the dirt compound from the remains of Ratnam’s home, which was destroyed by a cyclone. He told me that he and his family sleep in a tent in the central area of the compound, and keep their possessions in a box in one of the girls’ rooms.
We sat in chairs on the front porch, and Ratnam’s wife brought me a plate with fresh tomatoes, onions, toast, and jelly on it, along with a glass of beer. Apparently, having seen me drink beer the night before, word of my preference had preceded me. "I don’t drink coffee or alcohol," Ratnam said, "But you are welcome. I think it is safe for your stomach."
I agreed, remembering to take another quinine tablet, and made a simple sandwich out of the food. When I noticed I was the only one eating, Ratnam said that he would eat when I was finished, because I was "the guest." I explained that in my country it was best manners to "eat with the guest," so he ordered his lunch be brought—a rice curry with nuts and hot peppers—and ate it with his fingers in traditional Indian style. The children clustered around, fascinated to see me eating with what was probably the only fork in the village.
After we were finished, several of the widows approached us, heads down, as if they were very embarrassed. "They would like you to pray for them," Ratnam explained. "It would be a great honor for me if you would." He pointed to a toothless woman. "Her back is damaged, for example."
I put one hand on the woman’s head, another on her back, and silently prayed that God would send some of my vitality into this woman. She wept.
After her, there was a long line of old people, and then the children. On each, I placed my hand and said a simple prayer, feeling all the while terribly self-conscious, yet praying that it would do some good for them. I’m no holy man, nor even particularly pious, so this was a very humbling experience.
From the "Christian Mercy Children Welfare Association" center (where we were located), we then took a car about 10 miles away to another town, where we visited a home for blind children. All the teachers were blind, too, and Ratnam explained that one of them, the senior man, white-haired and in his 60s but very robust, was Ratnam’s uncle. The children ranged in age from around 4 to about 13. There were about 20 of them, along with a few blind adults. They sang several songs for me, and then two of the boys read brief passages from Braille Bibles: one in English and one in the local language. Outside, under another "Welcome Mr. Thomas C. Hartmann" handmade sign, they clustered together so Ratnam could take my picture with them. The children were so beautiful in this harsh and poor land. I fought the lump in my throat as we left.
"You support this organization?" I asked Ratnam as we drove away.
"Partially. The government will pay for their rent of the building, a poor house here in this slum, because they are blind. But because we and they are Christian, they are not allowed to take any other sort of assistance. So I pay for their teachers, their houseparents, and their food."
"How much does this cost you?" I said.
"About one thousand rupees a month," he said simply. Thirty dollars US.
"And your budget for the larger center?"
"That is about fifteen to twenty thousand rupees a month, for the children, the widows, the food, the doctor who comes every week, everything." Five to six hundred dollars.
Because I had to leave that night to take the overnight train back to Hyderabad, there was no time to go visit the leper colony which Ratnam also supports out of his $600 monthly budget. It would be a half-day’s drive away, and he asked me to return, with my wife, to see it.
I took the overnight train back to Hyderabad, sleeping fitfully with four other men in the small compartment, and then caught an Indian Airlines (the domestic airline) flight from Hyderabad to Bombay. There was a 20-foot sign behind the ticket counter that said, "25,000 Employees of Air India and Indian Airlines Are On Agitation Against Privatization." While wondering what this meant, I was sent from line to line. There were any number of airline employees sitting idly behind their counters, but when I approached, I was told that it was not their particular job to issue my ticket, or approve my credit card, or assign me a seat, or tell me if or when the flight would leave, and that I must go stand in another line. I spent most of my time standing in line, shooing off the mosquitoes that seemed to have a particular fondness for me.
As I stood in the airport, watching the bustle of businessmen and families traveling to far parts of India and the world, I reflected on Yogananda’s descriptions of this country in the 1920s when the population was a quarter of what it is now, and the Older Culture values of respect for the Earth and other living things were widely practiced. I felt a deep sadness for a time and place so recently lost.
In 1996, I returned to India to visit Ratnam at Herr Müller’s request. This time I took Louise and Kerith with me.
Part of the reason for the trip was that Herr Müller and I had been getting increasingly urgent letters appealing for money from a "Mrs. K," who said she was running an orphanage about 200 miles away from where Ratnam was located. She claimed that the orphanage had been started by an American woman, who was later killed in a car accident, leaving Kumari stranded with the children and no money. When we tracked the American woman down, however, we found her alive and well in upstate New York. She said that she’d visited India once on a business trip and had probably passed out a fair number of business cards, but had never visited, or supported, an orphanage there. Suspecting fraud, and worrying about whether it may have anything to do with Ratnam or his project or people working for him, Herr Müller asked me to promptly go to India in May, just a few weeks before the beginning of monsoon season.
Parts of the following are written in present tense because they’re directly transcribed from the report I typed for Herr Müller, using a palmtop computer as the events took place.
Returning to Bombay
Our first stop was Bombay, where again I was overwhelmed by the human misery. We arrived at night and everywhere people were sleeping on sidewalks, stacked side-by-side like cordwood, and using the streets as toilets. When we walked around the next morning, many of these people had vanished from the sidewalks, presumably to go off to do manual labor or beg. Most heart-wrenching were the many families: at least half, if not three-fourths, of the people we saw sleeping on the streets were families with children.
One particularly poignant situation was a little boy about 10 who was blind in one eye. He was carrying four or five handmade drums and approached us as we walked along the street in Bombay. Kerith made the mistake of asking him the price, and he then followed us for 6 blocks or more, pulling on our clothes, drumming his drums, and yelling at us.
I was torn between feeling sorry for him and being irritated at him. We ducked into several stores to avoid him, but he always waited for us and then re-began his sales pitch. Yelling ‘No’ at him only made him more persistent. I thought about giving him some money, but what we’d discovered at this point, to our chagrin, was that when we gave money to beggars they only then became far more aggressive, demanding more and getting more physically demanding, pulling on our clothes and grabbing our hands. In a country where toilet paper is virtually unknown, this can be quite disconcerting and scary. So finally we found a shopkeeper who came out and yelled at our little drummer boy and we were rid of him. Today, writing this, I think back on yesterday and wish that I had given him some money, even knowing that it would have increased the inconvenience to us.
May is a bad month to visit the interior of India. It’s brutally hot—the temperatures on the train were over 110º for most of the day, and the newspapers in Hyderabad were filled with stories of people who had died from the heat, which was 50º Celsius (105º F) average. The hot air was a palpable thing, a hot blanket that surrounds and stifles you and from which you cannot escape.
In addition, May is the month when most Indians go on vacation. This made it almost impossible to get a train reservation. We spent an entire day in Hyderabad just waiting for a confirmation to Rajamundri, and then when we arrived in Rajamundri we were told that all the return trains were full—we would have to travel on the overnight train back, perhaps sitting on the floor, certainly in a 2nd-class car with no amenities or glass windows.
Ratnam and about a dozen people met us at the station in Rajamundri with much noise and flower garlands and a photographer. My wife, child, and I refused to wear the garlands, and he became far less enthusiastic: apparently I had embarrassed him in front of his followers. To honor the guest is an ancient tradition in India, but I told him that I would rather that the money from the garlands go to the children, and that Jesus washed his disciples feet rather than the other way around. He was graceful but not smiling any longer.
Upon arrival in Rajamundri, we went first to the train station where we were told that it would not be possible to get a return train. Since we had left most of our luggage in Hyderabad, and I already knew that our flights were sold out, this presented a substantial problem, which Ratnam said he would solve. We went to a hotel in Rajamundri recommended by a businessman on the train and got a relatively clean room for about $12 per night.
Visiting Miss Kumari
As I type these words, we are in a taxi with Ratnam on the way to visit Miss Kumari. The roads are impossible and the driving is very dangerous. We just passed into the town of ‘LalumPeka’ (phonetic) and are now driving out of it.
Yesterday when I said that we must visit her, he was strongly against it. I insisted, however, and so now here we are in this ancient taxi with a truly crazed and perhaps suicidal driver.
In the last three hours we passed several wrecks, one recent and quite bloody: the rural roads here are treacherous—more so than any I’ve seen in the world—I’m thinking that I shouldn’t have brought my daughter along and subjected her to this danger.
We turned off the ‘main road’ onto an ox path and followed it for several miles to a little town in the middle of nowhere. No cars, few bikes, filled with semi-naked people and utter poverty.
In the middle of this town, we came to a dirt-floor building with a tiled roof (a major luxury—most have thatched roofs) and one brick wall. The other walls are made of newspaper glued together to resemble papier maché. It’s almost noon and brutally hot—we are all covered with a slimy sweat. We get out of the car and see the sign on the building: "Werner Child Welfare Home."
Ratnam leads us into the building where there are 14 children assembled, all apparently between five and ten years old. They begin singing and clapping—reciting over and over again what I assume are Bible songs. More arrive as we sit and listen, older children, probably pre-teens. It seems as if half the village will soon be here. The recent arrivals don’t seem to know the songs, so I suspect they’re more local kids.
Louise asks who the children are and where they live and Ratnam says that they are orphans or children of poverty who live here on the reed mats on the floor. One of the children opens one of a dozen boxes (each the size of a briefcase) and takes from it a book, but inside I can see clothing: I suspect he is one of the "true residents" of this place.
Ratnam sits at a table with a Bible and has Louise, Kerith and me sit beside him in chairs. The children are smiling and well-behaved and clean, but most are wearing clothing that is frayed and torn.
After 20 minutes or so of singing, Ratnam begins to call on children, who then stand up, Bible in hand, and read passages to us. I recognize the words "Jehovah," "Israel," and the "Hallelujah" that ends every song.
Then Ratnam gave a sermon, and then he asked me to do the same. So I told the story of the Sermon on the Mount and the importance of love, forgiveness, and to pray to G–d instead of just as a big show for people.
Just before the sermon, Mrs. K arrived. She is 25 years old, nicely dressed with a nice purse, and attractive in a somewhat plump Indian fashion. She speaks no English whatever, but only Talu, which is the language of the region: Ratnam will translate.
I asked her if she had any questions for me and she said, "Please help us."
Ratnam than told me that she said it costs her $20 per child per month for food. I calculated that at Rs 680, or over Rs20 per day, which in this part of this country is a lot of money (the average per capita income for the entire nation is about US$10/month). When I pointed this out, Ratnam said that that amount included the bank’s exchange fee, books, clothes, etc., and went far beyond food.
Before we left the USA for India, a friend who wrote a chapter for one of my books gave us $5 to give to a needy person when we arrived at our destination. As we were now as far into the interior of India as I could imagine being, I wrote a check on our personal account for a larger sum and gave it to Mrs. K along with the $5 bill from Sharon.
Driving back in the taxi to Rajamundri it is now well into the hottest part of the day. This car was built in 1950, and is far less than comfortable. The air from outside hits me like a blast from a furnace. And yet at least we are in a car and not walking along the roadside, or rolling ourselves on a small platform with wheels as used by the beggars in Bombay who have lost their legs.
26 May 1996
Reverend Yesu Ratnam picked us up in our hotel at 7:30 am. Kerith was eating a breakfast of fried onions, and I had some sort of thin fried bread that had slices of fresh onion and deadly hot little peppers wrapped up in it. The coffee was undrinkable: black like motor oil with grit in it, and smelling of sewage. I fear for the water it was made from, boiled or not. Mosquitoes nipped at our ankles.
Ratnam had hired the same driver as the day before, and he gave us another harrowing ride the 15 km from Rajamundri to Dowleswaram. We arrived at Ratnam’s place, which faces the road, around 8 a.m., just as the sun was midway up the morning sky and getting very hot. The air was still and dry, cutting into my nostrils; the temperature was well over 90 already. My skin was covered with sweat, tickling as it trickled down my back and stomach, and when I wiped my forehead on my white cotton shirtsleeve, just the ride from Rajamundri had covered me with so much grit, dust, and diesel exhaust that it left a dark stain on the shirt.
Ratnam had erected a hand-painted fabric sign over the entrance to his compound "Welcoming Mr. & Mrs. Thomas C. Hartmann & Family," and as we passed under this and through his gate we faced a double row of children and adults stretching a half a city block to the back of his buildings.
Children rushed up and reverently put flower garlands around our necks and threw rose petals over us and in our path, laughing and shouting welcome. Some of the children looked at our white faces and Louise’s blonde hair in slack-jawed amazement—in this most rural part of India they may have never before seen a Caucasian person—but most were giggling and jumping around as if they’d been invited to the world’s biggest birthday party.
Deciding that this was their culture and Ratnam’s show, we went along with good graces and accepted the garlands and waved and thanked them for the attention.
The women took 14-year-old Kerith off to the girls’ dormitory as Louise and I stood talking with Ratnam and the men. Shortly later Kerith emerged, very self-consciously wearing a beautiful Indian sari of rich orange and red, trimmed in gold. She looked like a princess, and the children all clapped in delight: the expressions on her face caused me to assume she was feeling both pride and embarrassment.
To the left of the compound a large tarp was set up on poles to keep the sun off the ground. Squatting on the hard red dirt under it were about 60 people. The first three rows were men, ranging from old age to teenage years, with a few small boys. The fourth and fifth rows were women and girls.
As Ratnam led us over to them, I wondered what was special about them and why they were sitting off to one side rather than participating in the welcoming festivities. As I got closer my stomach dropped as I realized the situation.
The man closest to me had no fingers on either of his hands, and his left foot was a bloody stump. The man next to him was missing the first two joints of all his fingers, and both feet. The man next to him had lost his entire right hand and most of his nose and chin: his feet—or what might have been left of them—were wrapped in pus-soaked bandages. Every person in the group—men, women and children—shared the same fate.
These were lepers.
Meeting and serving the lepers in Ratnam’s colony
Four folding chairs were set up in front of the group of lepers, and Ratnam gestured for Louise, Kerith, and me to join him in them. We sat and Ratnam gave a short speech in Talu, the local language. Then he asked me to speak, so I said a prayer asking for God’s blessing and grace on each of them and then sat down. They applauded, clapping stumps and bloodied limbs together.
Ratnam then pulled from his pocket a pack of 10 rupee notes (thirty cents US) about a half-inch thick, and asked me if I would give two notes to each of the lepers. As I walked along the rows handing each leper two notes, each handed back to me a small red carnation-like flower he’d been holding. Many cried as they did so: all were clearly grateful with what I was to learn was their monthly stipend. Soon my left hand was overflowing with the lepers’ flowers, and an assistant of Ratnam’s relieved me of my burden.
I was ripped with emotions. On the one hand, these people had a terrible and highly contagious disease which takes five years of daily medical treatment to stop. Ratnam later told me that none could afford the medications, as a week’s treatment cost could exceed three months worth of food and all were desperately poor: all these people had active cases of the disease, and using their pus-infected stumps and limbs they were handing me flowers.
On the other hand, I remembered Jesus’ admonition that we must always strive to help the least among us, that this was the most holy work we could do. He Himself went out of His way to heal lepers. And so mixed in with my fear was a certain joy at the opportunity to be on the front line, as it were, of help to humanity.
When I finished with the men, Ratnam suggested that Louise and Kerith should distribute money to the leprous women and children, which they did. Kerith conducted herself with aplomb, but I could see glistening in her eyes, as in Louise’s, the intense emotion that this experience was causing them.
After passing out the money, Louise, Kerith, and I all passed out three cupfuls of rice and a handful of vegetables to each of the lepers. It took a half-hour to finish the job, sweat soaked my clothes, but still I was conscious of how much more fortunate I was than any of these poor souls.
After feeding the lepers, Ratnam led us to the second floor of his main building. When I was here almost three years ago, this had been a bare roof, but now it was complete with rooms, doors, and ceiling, all made of durable concrete. The bottom floor was the girls’ dormitory, Ratnam explained, and the upper floor was to be the boys’ dormitory. While the floor was finished, it was unoccupied: Ratnam had been waiting for us to arrive (perhaps for several months?) for the ribbon-cutting and ceremonial prayers.
We cut the ribbons—me the first room, Louise the second, Kerith the third—and after each ribbon cutting the entire community walked around the inside of each room chanting a prayer to bless the room and its future occupants.
Following this, it was time for Sunday morning church services. Ratnam is an ordained Lutheran minister, and the main feeding hall doubles as a church on Sundays. In addition to the orphanage’s children, which seemed to number between thirty and fifty, at least another fifty people from the local community came for the service. Hymns were sung, prayers said, and then Ratnam asked me to give a sermon. I told the story from Matthew 6 in the Sermon on the Mount about the importance of praying in secret, which Ratnam dutifully translated, and then the service ended with one of the lay pastors giving a long-winded prayer (in an ironic contrast to my sermon).
After the church service a long line of old women assembled in front of me asking for a blessing. Remembering Herr Müller’s teaching about giving spiritual light and power from your right hand, I placed my hand on each person’s head and said a prayer in Hebrew. I could feel an energy flowing through me, from head to heart to hand and out, and it was interesting to see a number of these people visibly straighten, smile, and/or sigh loudly at the exact moment I could feel heat or power flowing out of my hand.
After the old women, many of the children lined up for a blessing, and then the men. This was all spontaneous and I spent altogether about a half hour in this process. Throughout the trip up to this time, I’d been practicing giving people light when we encountered beggars and others on the street.
From here we went to sit in the shade with Ratnam. He introduced us to his wife and his two sons, and his wife handed Louise their 14-day-old daughter, who they just adopted. The child was born premature, her mother died in childbirth, and she was so tiny and delicate it was like holding a baby bird. I took her in my arms and she immediately fell asleep. In this country where a substantial portion of children die before they reach puberty, I felt a painful emotion of joy and sadness that this child, if we can help Ratnam to continue his work, will have a chance to live.
Next the bookkeeper came over. After seeing my interrogation of Mrs. K, Ratnam had apparently anticipated this. Louise (who is, herself, trained as a bookkeeper and has done it for several of our companies) and I went through, page by page, line by line, the past 3 years of Ratnam’s books. Not only did everything seem in order, but we were impressed by how carefully and meticulously every expenditure was documented. I asked to see the bank’s records, and the bookkeeper brought out the actual printouts from the bank. We spent a half-hour comparing line-items from Ratnam’s hand-done books with the bank and they agreed perfectly. When I commented on this, the bookkeeper said that because Salem International/India was a registered charity with the government, everything must be exact to the last penny or there could be severe penalties … in addition to his desire to be accountable to Salem and the Swiss donor family.
Nearly all the moneys spent went to food and clothing for the children, and about US $1000 per year was spent for the expenses of his evangelists, which paid them $3 to $5 per month each to travel from city to city to preach, plus the cost of Bibles and literature.
After this, we met with the evangelists and the "Bible women" in a small room just behind where we had given the food to the lepers. Several told me that their families were hungry because Ratnam no longer had the money to pay them their $5/month allowance, and they were worried about their children. One man in particular held onto my feet and told me that he was afraid that one of his children might starve.
In response to this, I told them the story of Jesus telling his disciples that when they fed the hungry, clothed the naked, healed the sick, and visited those in prison that they were feeding, clothing, healing, and visiting Him. I said that some religious organizations, particularly those following the writings of Paul, put great emphasis on spreading the word of Christianity, and that while Salem respected and honored this work, we are not a proselytizing organization: instead, the mandate Herr Müller had given us was to feed, clothe, heal, and visit the least of the least: that in these, we were seeing the face of Christ.
This didn’t make them particularly happy, and so I told them that I would write a letter of recommendation about their work and send it for reproduction to Ratnam along with a listing of the mailing addresses of Lutheran churches in America, since Ratnam was ordained as a Lutheran minister and they may be interested in helping him.
After this meeting, we took a car back to Rajamundri. At 10 p.m. we left for the train station, but the train to Hyderabad was late. At 2:30 a.m. it arrived and left, with us jammed into a 2nd class compartment, wall-to-wall poor people, stinking of body odor and urine and filled with flies, for the twelve-hour ride to Hyderabad where we would pick up our commuter flight to Bombay for our Delta jet flight to Frankfurt.
On our return to America, we stopped in Germany to see Herr Müller and share our observations and the stories of our trip. He said, "Of course, the situation there is terrible: it is India," and then, "Of course, we must help." And so something that, to a Young Culture mind, would be a contradiction, now makes sense to me as my world-view is changing.
While this book was in production I heard a conservative talk-show host say it’s a joke that people in America are sending money to help the starving poor in India. Why? "Because," his reasoning went, "India has become a net exporter of wheat." If India is growing wheat that it’s shipping out of the country, why should we send food money in?
One response would be, as Herr Müller points out, that the right thing to do is to do what’s right: there is power in taking the right step, however small, and regardless of the situation. The Sermon on the Mount teaches that we should feed the hungry, and there are millions of hungry in Bombay.
Nonetheless, the situation in India is a sad irony, worth examining for a moment. How could it be that India is exporting more wheat than it imports while so many of its people starve?
The wheat growers in India grow and export wheat because that’s how they make money. There’s never any money to be made by feeding the penniless; the export transaction has nothing to do with the starving neighbors. The starving people simply don’t enter the equation.
I have no objection to profit. I’ve started and run several successful businesses. But I’ve come to understand that the profit motive flourishes only in younger cultures—the cultures in which people see themselves as separate from each other and from the rest of existence.
Profit exists only if you draw a circle between "me" and "not me," then measure how much goes out of your circle and how much comes in. That simply doesn’t happen in the older cultures where people don’t isolate themselves but instead feel "we’re all in this together."
The talk show host identified a nasty irony in India. But he didn’t notice that it’s caused by the people in that ancient land who’ve adopted his younger-culture ideals.