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 Jeep Ride That Changed Your Lives Before You Were Even Born

tim92

Dear Ezra and Lian,

Ezra, at the beginning of May, you went to the school program, “Racing Against Drugs.” Sadly, I realized then that you are now old enough to read this story, but your sister sure isn’t. Please keep this from her for at least a few more years. When she is old enough, she needs to read it. This is “The Jeep Ride That Changed Your Lives Before You Were Even Born.” Another title might be “Back in Champhai.” Either way, this story will explain why a lot things have happened in your life and will happen in the near future.

Until November, 2013, I had buried this story in my mind. I had no recollection of it at all. For almost twelve years, I never thought about it. Things happened in 2013 that dredged this back up to the surface. While having a massage for my aching neck and back and talking about Rob Ford, the former mayor of Toronto, I found myself telling this story.

I had a real good friend in Mizoram. I lived in his house for a couple of months. We ate his wife’s amazing cooking. I played with his young son. We talked for hours. I learned fascinating stories about Mizoram and his life. He was incredibly honest with me. I became like his priest to whom he confessed everything. He was smart. He knew a little bit of everything. His father had me edit his memoirs, which were very interesting since he drafted the Mizoram Peace Accord. I ended up “working” for them. They were a very powerful family in Mizoram, but they were my friends too. I loved them. His name was Fela. His father was the former Congress politician and Chief Secretary Pu Lalkhama.

Later that year, Fela and one of his Mizo friends were taking your mommy, Auntie Beth, our friend Sarah, and me from Champhai to the Burma border. We were driving in his big jeep called a Sumo. It was a beautiful day. We were travelling over rolling hills in the countryside. There were hardly any vehicles on the road.

Two things quickly changed this ride from a relaxing trip to one of stress and fear. First, Fela was drinking hard liquor and getting drunk fast. About halfway into the trip, I saw that he was also taking drugs. His mind was getting messed up. Second, he brought a loaded handgun.

When we stopped for a brief rest, Fela took some shots at the trees for target practice. Even as we were driving, he was shooting out the window. My friend had become a mad man with a gun. Since we were getting close to the border, this was very dangerous behaviour. We could get shot by the border guards. I knew I had to get the gun from my friend.

I asked to see the revolver. I was admiring it when I distracted my drunk and spaced-out friend. I hid the gun in my stuff so that neither of the Mizo guys would know where it was. Then my friend started talking about how we would be crossing the border illegally (for the non-Mizos). This situation was getting worse.

At this point, I will simply say this: as we were pulling into the border area, I whispered to your mom that it was extremely important to do as I said. (I was trying to keep the gun out of my friend’s hands.) Also, I needed to make sure we pacified my drunken, obstinate friend. We needed to walk to the river on the border and get out of this place As Soon As Possible. We parked the vehicle and got out. Your mom wouldn’t listen and started talking loudly about the gun. This made my friend realize that I now had the gun. To keep my friend and his friend quiet and avoid a scene near the border crossing, I had to quietly give the gun back. An Indian or Burmese soldier could have seen or heard this at any moment.

If it is possible to yell at someone while whispering, that is what I was doing to your mother. We were less than 100 yards from the Burma border and, potentially, soldiers of the Republic of the Union of Myanmar. There was an active insurgency against the Myanmar dictatorship (junta) by the Chin (mega-tribe including Mizos). Those soldiers would be happy to blow the head off any Mizo walking around with a revolver in his hand regardless of which side of the border he stood. Just because their dads were important in India meant nothing to soldiers who routinely raped, killed, extorted, used slave labour, and beat up Chin people. Even now, a Chin is automatically accepted as a genuine refugee in Canada or the United States because of this persecution. Thankfully, the Burma (Myanmar) government has improved immensely since 2012. I was so fed up with the Mizos in that jeep being complete idiots. I was finished trying to keep them from getting killed.

Fortunately, at that time there was no bridge, just a crude, rowboat-sized ferry. Consequently, it was not an official border crossing or customs point. Unbelievably, there wasn’t a single soldier in sight on either side. Eventually, my friend’s friend gave me the gun when he realized what I was trying to do. We saw Burma from across the river. I got all of us out of there as soon as I could.

By the time we got to our hotel, my friend Fela was nearly a zombie. I practically dragged him to the toilet in his room. As he threw up, I had to hold his head so he didn’t drown in his own vomit. Then he had to take a pee. I had to pull his pants and underwear down. My left hand had his one arm wrapped around my shoulders. My right hand held his bare hip. I tried to steer the firehose of urine into the Indian-styled toilet. Half of it was on the floor or on my shoes. When he finished, I hauled his body to the bed. He was like a sack of potatoes. He was soaked with the hard liquor sweats, urine, and vomit. I pulled off his shoes, slung his arms and legs around, and wiped vomit from his face and clothes because he was completely passed out. I looked down on my mess of a friend and sat down on the edge of the bed with my head in my hands. I wanted to cry.

It became crystal clear to me at that moment; Fela was going to throw it all away. He could have become anything but he was going to destroy all that potential. Here was a man who could become a government minister in the state of Mizoram or a successful businessman or the leader of a charity or school, but he was in the process of losing it all. Eventually, he would lose his wife and son. He got out of business and stayed out of politics. I don’t know what he is doing now but I’m sure he is nowhere near where he could have been. Within a few months of this event, his father Pu Lalkhama was threatening to sue me for unjust reasons. My friend Fela never defended me. He was paralyzed or in a drunken stupor. Mommy and I left Mizoram to prevent a big quarrel between families.

Linus, a character from the Peanuts Gang, said, “There’s no heavier burden than a great potential.” It weighed heavily on my friend. He had the intelligence, skills, money, and connections to do remarkable things. He wasted his life due to untreated depression, drunkenness, and drugs. He could hardly see the point of even being alive, which is why he did such dangerous things.

The pathway is there for all three of us to walk down. You probably won’t even have to choose it; forces and people are bringing it our way. It is so easy. I am doing my best to stop that from happening. All I can do is delay it. The final decision is up to you. You will have to choose to forgive. If not, this is your future, kids. Trust me, it IS true.

You are going to have to forgive the same things my friend didn’t forgive. Soon I will tell you what those things are, but first, you need to put on an attitude of forgiveness. You are going to have to trust God, something my friend never did. God can easily overcome this through you. Yet, if you decide to hold onto the bitterness and disappointment coming your way, you will end up in a pool of sweat, vomit, and urine. Only with the supernatural power of God’s Holy Spirit working in you can you hope to conquer this.

There are phenomenal things you can do with this one life God has given, or you could throw it all away like my good friend did. If you go to rock bottom, I will follow you down and clean you up. I’m not scared of messes. I am scared that you might try to fight this battle by yourselves. You need Jesus; lean on Him.

When I realized that the scene of my passed-out friend on the bed could be your future, my perspective changed. Everything that led this man to that spot is prepared for you. People, places, and events are all set up and waiting for you. The trail is blazed. Don’t worry, though; we’re not going there anymore. We got out of the jeep driven by a maniac. I’m sorry we didn’t get out sooner. The road is just as dangerous, but the driver is totally different. God opened the doors on His bus. Hold my hands. Hop on board. Enjoy the ride.

Love,

Dad

P.S. You are probably wondering, How did this change our lives? I will tell you soon.

 

 

How I was able to marry your mother – Anything can happen in India#2

tim79

Dear Ezra and Lian,

I had spent about 2 months in Mizoram in the winter of 2000. I left Mizoram late March 2000. I was travelling the last leg of the journey; a train travelling about 1800 kilometres from Calcutta in West Bengal to Nashik in Maharashtra. The reason I was coming back; to ask your mom to marry me.

I had visited all the family back in Mizoram. I think I passed all their tests and was properly vetted. I think it somewhat impressed them that I travelled all the way to Champhai to visit your great-grandparents. I did it all over land; no flying. From Bombay, that’s 7 days of travelling trains, buses and jeeps when you don’t know what you’re doing.

Of course, before I could consider asking your mom to say “Yes!” to me, I had to talk to her father. I needed to ask for his permission. That’s a letter for another time. Let me just say, I had no idea how I would convince an Inspector General of Police that he should let me marry his daughter. He sent her to the best of schools. She had dated a TV soap star, the sons of wealthy industrialists, even a prince. 11 guys had asked for hand in marriage and been denied….by Ruth. They didn’t even make into your grandpa’s office for the Big Question.

I was so eager to see your mom again, I took the first train I could get a ticket on and that would get me closest to her. It was going to take 36 hours as per the schedule. However, it wasn’t the best train to take. Also, the best route was to take a Calcutta to Bombay express. Instead, this train’s ultimate destination was Ahmedabad via Surat. My final station was near the Gujarat/Maharashtra state border. By car, this was still hours away from Nashik. All the same I jumped on board.

The train ended up being about 12 hours late. That meant I spent about 48 hours and 2 nights on a train. I had a “sleeper berth” in AC so it was not horrible. Still, that was 48 hours of eating nothing but chicken curry and rice or eggs and toast. 48 hours of swaying back and forth and trying not to miss the toilet or roll out of bed. No showers. Sometimes we would spend hours in the middle of nowhere, not moving at all. By the time I arrived at my final station, I felt like I had been to sea in a tin can for a week. I didn’t feel that well. I didn’t look that well. I certainly didn’t smell that well.

I stepped off the train with my backpack. (Of course, Canadian Pilgrim would have a Canadian flag patch sewn on.) I slowly made my way through a crowd of people eager to get away from our “prison”. Then I saw her, your mother. She was beautiful in a salwar kameez with a dupatta on her head (you’ve never seen your mom like this.) I began running as fast as my “sea legs” would take me. I could hear the romantic music from a Bollywood movie in my head. “Kuch Kuch Hota Hai” Something was indeed happening.

Then, I saw two police officers standing beside her. I stopped moving and wondered what was happening. Then two officers suddenly appeared beside me. One physically grabbed my backpack off my shoulder. The other pushed me forward. I thought your mom was going to run into my arms for a big hug and a kiss. No.

“Hello, Mr. Nghinglova” I greeted your grandfather in full police officer uniform. He greeted me warmly with a big smile. Around us were about 20 police officers and jawans under his command. He said, “Shall we go then?” All of us then proceeded through the train station. The crowds parted like the Red Sea for us. Everyone stared at this beautiful young lady, lots of serious policemen and this bedraggled, rail-thin, dirty smelly, tall, white guy with rare hair being pushed along. I cast a backwards glance at Mommy wondering why she never kissed me. I wasn’t exactly sure if I was being taken to Mommy’s home or to an interrogation session at the nearest police station.

We reached a car. I got in the backseat and surprisingly so did your grandpa. Mommy sat in the front with the driver. The car’s siren came on and its warning lights began to flash. Two jeeps in front of us did the same and two behind us as well. I even think a couple had roof mounted machine guns, but it was all just a blur. Most of the journey took place after dark. We raced through the darkness. We passed hundreds of vehicles for hours. It’s strange, after a while you don’t even notice the sirens wailing any more.

Grandpa, rather, Inspector General of Police, Nashik Range, Mr. B.T. Nghinglova and I made small talk. We talked about my train trip and my longer journey. Of course, he asked, like every Mizo does, “How do you find Mizoram?” (A Canadian immigrant from India once asked Ezra, “How do you find London, Ontario?” Ezra seriously said, “I got off the train and there it was.”) I told your grandfather I had fallen in love with Mizoram.

I spent all the pauses in our conversation wondering what I would say to win him over. How was I going to convince him that I would make a great husband for his daughter? I was running out of time. I figured the next day would be my one and only chance to ask him while alone.

Suddenly, words something like this, came out of his mouth; “I understand you are interested in our daughter; that you would like to marry her. From our side, we have no objection.” I said thank you, but I was so stunned I didn’t know what else to say or do. I thought that went a lot easier than I expected.

After hours of travel, we finally reached Mommy’s house in Nashik. Your grandpa went to wash up for a late dinner. I snuck a big hug and kiss with Mommy while he was gone. Then Mommy went to get ready for dinner as well. While I waited, I looked at the mantle over the fireplace. There was a trophy. The statuette was of a man. He had one arm pointing straight in front of him while holding a pistol. I read the inscription. It read something like this; “State of Maharashtra Police Shooting Champion, 1994”.

I was sure glad he said, “Yes”. I didn’t want to imagine what he would have done if he had said, “No”.

Love,

Dad