Sanga and Saia

tim104

Dear Ezra and Lian,

This letter is so difficult to write. I’ve been trying to write it for over a year. I think about it, but it literally makes me sick to my stomach. There’s a lot of emotion attached to it. I try to type words, but I don’t proceed. I’ve written you almost 50 letters now and I still struggle to get this one done. Here goes.

I’ve told you about the worst thing I’ve eaten (rat), but not the worst meal I ever ate. Physically and emotionally, this meal took a far greater toll on me. Imagine eating a meal that you think about every month for the rest of your life? That’s what this meal did to me. It haunts me still.

One of things I used to do in Mizoram, was take old, no longer used microscopes from Canada there. These microscopes were then used in small malaria clinics. Small villages would build a small, simple building the size of a Canadian tool shed. The village would have a committee that would organize fundraising and volunteers. They would select a young person from the village to get trained in detection of malaria and how to run the clinic. Each of these clinics would save lives every year. Rural people would easily and cheaply get tested. They then could get life-saving medication. It also kept them healthier and able to provide for their families.

Once we had a unique opportunity. The Border Security Force (BSF) near Tlabung had a terribly high incidence of malaria amongst their personnel stationed there (over 50% at any one time). They had no microscope. So they would over-prescribe malaria medication or respond too slowly to a malaria infection. They offered a deal. In exchange for a microscope, they would fully staff its use and give out free tests and malaria medication to the local people near their headquarters. Too good to pass up.

So one day, I, Sanga and Saia travelled to the remote border region near Tlabung. Sanga is the best driver in Mizoram. Saia is a worker for the Relief & Development department of the Baptist Church of Mizoram. From Lunglei, it was over 4 hours of driving on roller coaster roads. I think there was even a mudslide along the way.

When we got there, I was introduced to the chief medical officer for the BSF regiment on that sector of Bangladesh-India border. We had a brief conversation about the malaria situation in the region and what we were going to do that afternoon. Then I was asked some questions about myself. What did I do back in Canada? The usual one in India, “How did I ever end up in Mizoram of all places?” I told them I was married to a Mizo (Mommy) and about her family (Grandpa being a high-ranking police officer).

The medical officer offered me lunch with the other officers. Then he told me that Sanga and Saia would have to eat outside on a tree stump. Inside was nothing special. It was just a big shack with flies buzzing around. However, it was “explained” to me that since my Mizo friends were low class, they couldn’t eat with officers. I, however, was invited to join them.

There was so much riding on this day. Not only would over 550 people get free malaria tests and possibly medication that day, they would also get it permanently. Also, Tlabung was on the border with Bangladesh. It had recently been designated as an approved entry and exit point for cross-border trade by the Indian Central Government. However, BSF guards could easily shut that down or demand huge bribes from local traders and farmers. Before I left, my friend Dawnga, reminded me of this. I was being sent on a goodwill mission on behalf of the local people. I was there to foster good relations between the BSF and the local tribal people (Mizos, Chakma, amongst many others).

With a heavy heart, I dragged myself inside. I lost most of my appetite. I felt sick to my stomach. I pushed as much food as I could into my mouth. I tried to feign cheerfulness whenever I was asked a question. At the earliest opportunity, I got back outside. I had to get the microscope ready for a busy day.

Soon there was a huge, long line up of people waiting to get their blood tested for malaria. One at a time, people would give their names, get a pinprick and give a drop of blood for a blood smear. This went on for hours. Over 550 got tested before I left. Of those, at least 277 were positive for malaria. Each one of them would get the necessary medication from the BSF. The chief medical officer (CMO) would keep them under his care to ensure they didn’t develop complications.

The CMO told me a story while the testing was going. He described how a local man had a terrible case of malaria. Since, the doctor at the local hospital is only present to collect his salary once a month (like almost every hospital outside of Aizawl and Lunglei) there was no one to look after the man. This man was soon going to die without help. He was getting fluid on brain. The CMO and a driver took him to Lunglei. The man was vomiting constantly. So much so, that he started to cough up blood. It was a horrible situation, but somehow they made it to the hospital in time. The man’s life was saved.

I want you to realize, the CMO didn’t have to do any of this. He was not responsible for this man in any way. In fact, a local Mizo doctor was responsible, but he lived comfortably in Aizawl away from the people he was supposed to serve. It wasn’t the CMO’s duty to give free medical care to the local people. He had other ways to look after BSF personnel. However, he took his Hippocratic oath as a doctor seriously. He really did go beyond the call of duty to save lives and care for people.

I also want you to realize this CMO was a terrible man. He was a high caste Hindu, who clearly was bigoted against those who were not. He was racist against all the tribal people around him. He thought them lesser human beings. He was incredibly classist. Those who served in some occupations deserved respect, others disdain. He believed in high birth and low birth. (Ironic that he let me eat with him.) I still resent to this day, the position he put me in. He intentionally made me choose between my friends’ dignity and the lives in that village. On the way home that day, Sanga and Saia talked to me about the insult they were given for being Mizos.

Kids, I want you to know two things. One, growing up in Canada you are going to be taught repeatedly that racism and bigotry are THE worst sins you can commit. (Only in a comfortable country can people believe this.) It is a complete lie. There are so many things far worse. The apathy that lets someone live in ease and comfort, while there are those less than 50 miles away being denied medical care or food to which they are entitled, is far, far worse. That apathy kills people. You will be told that racism is the root of death and violence. It’s utter nonsense. Greed, laziness, apathy, selfishness have killed far more. Some of the proudest Mizo “Christians” live in Aizawl. They love Mizos in all their Mizoness AND they are quite content to let their fellow Mizos die due to neglect. Meanwhile, a racist, bigoted, arrogant man from another religion living in very difficult circumstances in area filled with disease, was not willing to casually stand by and watch them suffer. At the end of the day, actions are far more important than attitudes. Actions speak louder than words.

Secondly, I want you both to know this; you will never have to make that choice I did. While you are in Mizoram, you are going to eat with the officers and with your friends and with anybody you care to invite. I stood there unsure of myself. I was a foreigner from humble origins. You are going to tell them who you are. You are going to tell them that if they want to insult all the people of Mizoram, they will exclude your guests. You will turn the tables on the officers, the rich and the powerful. You will invite them to eat with you. You will invite whoever you want to eat with you. You will have the confidence to do that because you will know who you are. It is an honour to eat with you and your friends. If someone doesn’t want that, then let them eat by themselves.

Love,

Dad

 

The Snow Tiger in The Jungle

tim18

 

Dear Ezra and Lian,

I was going to write a book called, “The Snow Tiger In The Jungle”. It was going to be an awesome epic. It was going to be about a Canadian boy growing up in an unnamed country in Asia. It was going to take place in mountainous jungles.

The story begins with this 4 year old half Asian/half Caucasian boy playing with ice. (Ezra when you were 4, you loved doing that. Just like Lian does now at the same age.) The boy is outside of house and watching him is the Snow Tiger from the edge of the jungle. The Snow Tiger is so curious about the boy. He is unlike any boy he has ever seen. He is also talking perfect Tiger language. (Though the Snow Tiger understands all languages of all creatures, he clearly and surprisingly hears his own tongue being spoken.) The Snow Tiger thinks the boy looks delicious, but he is so curious to see ice so far away from his home in the snow covered mountains.

Suddenly he jumps out in front of the boy and lets out a great roar. The boy is not frightened or even bothered. Instead, he gives the Snow Tiger some ice to lick. Thus begins a great friendship between the Snow Tiger and the boy. The boy and the Snow Tiger start talking with one another. The boy’s mother looks out the window of the house to see her son. She can’t see the Snow Tiger. Only those who have been roared at, can see him. She thinks to herself, “He’s talking to the angels.” This is what the local tribe say babies and toddlers do when they are babbling to themselves. (It was said about Ezra when you appeared to be talking to someone in the corner of an empty room.)

There is a belief amongst many Mizos that tigers only kill evil people doing wicked things. The story assumes this myth to be true. Thus, the Snow Tiger is prevented from ever eating the boy because he has a pure heart. One time though, The Snow Tiger is about to eat someone. The Snow Tiger waits at night. He is outside their window and licking his lips as the human is about to do this terrible thing. At that moment, the boy appears in front of The Snow Tiger. The boy distracts him. The Snow Tiger is angry with the boy. He explains who he really is; he both protects and punishes the people who live in these hills. He also is really hungry and has to eat some living thing. Since the boy really loves this person who The Snow Tiger wishes to eat, the boy finds a solution. He brings his pet dog as a substitute. With a roar, the Snow Tiger grabs the dog and with one shake of its neck, it is killed. The Snow Tiger runs off into the darkness. High up in a tree, he eats the dog. (Even though this book is about a four year old, it is only to be read by much older children.)

After some adventures together, the book would introduce the boy’s father. He is an untrained volunteer trying to help poor farmers deal with a plague of rats. The plague is caused by a once-every-50-years “gregarious synchronous flowering of bamboo”. The plague leads to a famine as the rats eat everything above ground. Sounds a lot like mautam doesn’t it?

A couple chapters into the story, we slowly begin to realize that this boy has autism. For The Snow Tiger In The Jungle isn’t just about a boy. It’s about Ezra Morgan and his father Tim. It’s not inspired by their experiences, it will actually detail what their life was like. It will compress 9 years into a few months inside the book. As Ezra began therapy in 2009, I realized he was changing. I wanted to have a reminder for him when he was older of what his life used to be like. I also want to secretly tell you what my life was like as well.

No one could ever challenge me on the facts or information in the book because it was “fiction” No one would ever worry about the author’s tone or mental state because the story was a “fantasy”. I would have time to craft it just right. I could substitute a better word here. Delete a phrase there. I would paint just the right setting with words. I could freely write the undiluted truth under cover of a children’s story. I had nothing to worry about. Only 3 people would ever know that all the events really happened. Me, Ezra and later when she was born, Lian. Your mom wouldn’t even know for sure how much of it was true. If anyone ever asked me, if these things really happened, I always planned on saying, “It’s a true story about Truth and The Snow Tiger.” Since no one believes in Snow Tigers, then they would conclude that it was all fiction. Secretly, us 3 would only know just how true it all was.

These letters that I’m publicizing on this blog are the slow and systematic destruction of that book. All my best stories were supposed to be hidden inside The Snow Tiger In The Jungle. Now, here they are out in the open. It genuinely makes me sad. I loved that book. I wrote it so many times in my head. I could make myself cry re-reading those chapters in my imagination.

When I became a single parent when you two were 9 and 2 years old, I knew I would never find the time to finish the novel before both of you became teenagers. I had to tell you these stories while you could still use them. As adults, it’s probably way too late.

Also, I was forgetting too many details of what Ezra was like from 2-5 years old. I think Ezra was around 8 when he said something like, “I remember when I had a lot more autism.” So do I, little buddy, but I’m forgetting so quickly. You have become soooo different. I don’t just mean you’re growing up into a young man before my eyes. Your autism world was so frustrating, scary and out of control for you. It was also so wonderfully different. It was another world; like Alice’s Wonderland. I wanted to write it all down before both Ezra and I forgot what it was like.

That story would have been so much better than these letters. Since it would have been fiction, I could have changed things to make it a happier story. I’m sorry that this is what you get to read. I know a lot of adults would be a lot happier if I wrote The Snow Tiger In The Jungle. So would I, but circumstances have changed things.

At the end of The Snow Tiger In The Jungle, the Snow Tiger gets captured and tied up. The very creature who protects all the hilly people was going to be killed by them. They stopped believing that he looked after them because of the rat plague and the famine that it was causing. My character convinced them to let me take the Snow Tiger to a tiger reserve out of the state. We load him on top of our jeep and start driving. As we get close to the reserve, Ezra being Ezra, he undoes his seat belt and climbs on top of the jeep to be with his friend. Somehow he loosens the ropes. The Snow Tiger doesn’t jump off the roof. He sits up, with Ezra between his two front paws and lets out the greatest roar he has ever given.

With that roar, birds of prey begin flying overhead. Then behind the jeep another tiger appears running after the vehicle. Soon all the rarest of animals of North East India are there running or flying behind. Elephants, monkeys, rhinoceros, civet cats, Asian bears and more tigers are running. The Snow Tiger and Ezra have the wind blowing through fur and hair as The Snow Tiger roars again and again. More and more animals come out. We turn the jeep around and head back to Mizoram.

This huge wave of animals and cloud of birds stream back into the farm fields and jungle forests. They begin to destroy the rats by the tens of thousands. They are ruined. There is no place to hide. The king of the rats flees and the plague is over. There is much rejoicing in the land. Hope is restored. The Snow Tiger is hailed as the true ruler of the mountains. They all lived happily ever after.

www.dearezraandlian.com isn’t that at all. It’s a poor substitute, but it’s all I have.

Love,

Dad

 

Champhai in retrospect

tim11Originally posted to my personal Facebook page on May 5, 2015

Dear Ezra and Lian,

During World World II, an Allied pilot flying over the Chin Hills during the Burma campaign ran into trouble. He had to make an emergency landing. The only flat land for at least 50 miles in any direction was the rice paddies of Champhai. He safely landed. The man who would be chief of the area greeted him and saw to his welfare. He arranged for his safe transport to the port at Chittagong. For the chief, this was the first Sap (white man) he had ever seen.

Over 55 years later, a tall, skinny Sap with red hair came to visit him and his wife. He had travelled over oceans by planes. He crossed India by train. He rolled over mountains in buses and jeeps. It took over a week. This man came to pay his respects and hopefully win the favour of his family. He impressed the family enough, that within a few weeks, the chief’s son gave his approval for me to marry his daughter (Mommy). According to your great-grandfather, B. P. Khuma, I was the second Sap he had ever seen.

A few years after the war was over, India became an independent country. They began the process of writing a constitution. You grandfather as chief was invited to some of those meetings. The chiefs of the tribes of the Northeast considered whether they should join the rest of India. The British before they left India had contemplated creating a Kingdom of the tribes between India, China, East Pakistan and Burma. However, there was chaos as the British began to lose control and the partition of India began to happen. There were worries about what China would do. The chiefs were assured that 10 years after Independence they could hold a vote to separate or stay inside India. So with that promise they voted to remain inside India. Ten years came and went, but no vote was ever held. This led to much of the unrest in the area until now.

In 1959, the mautam famine due to bamboo flowering hit. (Here’s a video I helped make about it https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=p9xj-JcE8ng) The government of India and the state government of Assam failed to send adequate supplies. Over 10,000 people starved to death. This lead to the creation of the Mizo Famine Front, an aid agency. Due to the inaction for years and extreme poverty they became the Mizo National Front. On March 1, 1966, they declared Mizo independence from India. They had about 1 month of success. They captured almost all Indian army and border security forces. Then the airstrikes began.

The Indian air force began bombing and strafing missions on the capital city of Aizawl. All civilians fled into the villages. It is the only instance in Indian history that its air force bombed their own civilian population. The MNF retreated but fought a successful series of surprise attacks launched from small hamlets and villages. To combat the insurgency, in 1967, the Indian army destroyed 80% of every village house and farm in the state. Mizos were herded into internment camps in the major towns and cities. They were cut off from their farms. There was much starvation. At this time, your great-grandfather and great-grandmother had their home and farm burned to the ground. With their children, the clothes on their backs, they fled into the jungle. All they had for food was the leg of a deer and half a bag of rice.

Despite all of this, to some degree, they forgave India. They were two of the jolliest people I have ever met. Their son, Mommy’s Dad, also managed to forgive the government of India. Within a few years, he was a police officer enforcing that government’s laws. When he retired, he was a Deputy General of Police in the state of Maharashtra. Amongst the Mizos, that is the 2nd highest anyone has risen in the police.

Ezra, you have a great capacity for forgiving. Lian, I hope you can follow your brother’s example. Maybe you inherited it from grandfather. Maybe it is the gift of God. I hope you can forgive India for what they did to the Mizos. Someday, you need to talk to your grandfather about this. There is a tremendous power that is unleashed when we forgive and reconcile. It can destroy walls. It can build bridges. It can do the impossible.

We seem to be entering a time of grievances. Hurt people hurt people. This is leading to destruction, fires, pain and death. As you enter your teenage years, many will try to whip you up into a frenzy of rage and righteous anger against the injustices that exist near us. I want you to measure those issues against what your own Mizo family have experienced. Before you pick up pens, placards or pistols to fight, I want you to take the time to see if you can forgive. If you can’t forgive, I want you to explain to me how your grandparents could move past the great evil done to them, but you cannot. If you can’t forgive, I want you to explain to me why you are not in Mizoram ending great injustices still there.

I hope you choose to free yourself from the need for revenge. You are so young, but there are miracles in your hearts. Forgiving can unleash that power for good. You are small, but with a tiny faith God can throw our mountains into the sea. It is time, my little buddy and my sweetie pie, to see what God will do with it.