// india – people

[AUTHOR’S NOTE: This is the fifth and final day of recollections of an intern mission trip to work with Asha Bhawan, the Indian incarnation of the drug rehab charity Betel, in early April 2010. Day One and Introduction can be found here, Day Two can be found here, Day Three here and Day Four here]

(courtesy of Ben Osborne)

Our team of six – the intern guys, plus Owen – arrive in Guwahati after 27 hours on a train, set our bags down in the room and then are almost immediately told that we have to leave for church again. So we pile back into a jeep and a few minutes later we are at the room that passes for church, painted in the standard Betel colours (white and blue), and with flags displaying the phone numbers of Betels worldwide all around the room. Another ceiling fan, another battered guitar and another group of maybe 60 former drug addicts who have obviously been waiting just for us to arrive.

We take our seats together at the front of the room and a man steps up to the lectern and says something in Hindi, and then the room stands up around us. Evidently, he is a worship leader, then, and this is a time of worship.

And then he launches into an animated rendition of a song called “Jesus is the winner man” that promptly reduces a number of us into suffocating fits of laughter. The lyrics go something like this:

Jesus is the winner man, the winner man, the winner man

Jesus is the winner man, winner man, all the time!


Winner man (x8), winner man, all the time!

It gets even better when the second verse, “Satan is the loser being”, kicks in, and I look across at Owen and Ben, whose shoulders are shaking as silent tears roll down their cheeks. We just about last until the final verse, “We are on the winning side”, and then I think someone picks up a guitar and plays Chris Tomlin instead, and so we’re safe.


(courtesy of Ben Osborne)

At the Guwahati house we meet Hazarika, who shakes all our hands enthusiastically – and for a second too long – as he introduces himself to us. He is an ex-alcoholic and maintains some of the habits; his speech is slightly slurred, his manner slightly off-balance and he keeps wiping his mouth with the back of his hand as though violently thirsty. Some of this comes from an accident he had twenty years ago whilst working on a tea plantation, which has left him with metal plates in his legs and with some slight brain damage. All that said, though, he comes from a well-respected Assamese family and it shows; his hospitality, albeit rather odd, is second to none, he is easily the best-dressed resident of Asha Bhawan we meet and he is a top-quality translator.

He is also now addicted to one rupee boiled sweets. Jez goes out to sell calendars for a day with him and returns with twenty or so, which he scatters across the table. He is ever so slightly mad, but as Ben comments at one point, “put him in an Oxford lecture hall and he’d be sorted”.

On our second night in Guwahati, Jez, Roland and myself head out with him on a pastry run, an attempt to build relationships with the guys in the house. It starts badly when we jump into the van half an hour late, having eaten dinner later than planned, and so the whole thing takes on a slightly manic approach as we attempt to get around before the pastry shops all close. This is evidently a nightly routine. Got to have your morning samosa, after all.

Tonight, though, we are being driven around by Sunil, a moustachioed former addict who only arrived from Asha Bhawan Calcutta a week ago and doesn’t yet know the roads. He also drives like they drive in Calcutta – that is to say, like a lunatic, weaving in and out of traffic at high speed and terrifying any cyclists who dare get in his way.

From the back of the van, Hazarika yells instructions at Sunil as we head down main streets at high speed. “Go! Here! Turn! No, back! Turn around! Down there! Yes!” Every now and again the van slows to around 10mph and one of us is ordered out by Hazarika. Once, we slow down and Jez is ordered out of the van. “Here!” Hazarika says firmly, handing me a bucket with one hand on my arm. “This is important! Don’t forget! This must go to the men!” He jumps out of the van and races into a shop, and when they re-emerge he tells me that the bucket in my hand is going to the children’s house. I am bewildered, but when I question him, he tells me, I am wrong, why do I not listen? We drive off, and he hands me a boiled sweet – by way of apology, I think. I look at the buckets for the men’s, women’s and children’s houses at our feet. They are identical.

Thanks to Sunil’s mad Calcuttan driving skills, we hit nine or ten pastry shops in an hour and a half and fill our buckets with a whole range of pastries. “Come come! We must go! Down here!” Hazarika shouts at Sunil from the back. “Do you like pastries? Here we will get the best pastries!” We stop and I clamber out of the van so Hazarika can introduce me to his cousin. (Although, as far as I can tell, there are no pastries involved.) Still, each to their own – when they go out to sell calendars in the next few days Owen and Jez each receive a packet of Assamese tea that does look distinctly like cannabis.

And then amidst the chaos, Hazarika stops and asks, “would you like some chai?

We stop, and for five minutes, drink some tiny shots of tea by the roadside without a care in the world. And then we jump back in the van and get more pastries. Of course.


(courtesy of Hannah Tenbeth)

When I first meet Mouscan in the Delhi children’s house she has just been taught to blow raspberries by Hannah Tenbeth, and proceeds to demonstrate this new talent at every available opportunity, drenching me with spittle as she clings onto my shoulder. She is three years old and, in spite of myself, I fall in love with her instantly. She is such a tangible story of hope; Asha Bhawan started an orphanage in the first place because women kept coming off drugs, recovering to a certain level and then leaving, and in the process leaving their children at the houses. I never saw her when she came in, but to see her now, praying prayers of astonishing maturity and climbing into bed to comfort a sick Charlotte Webb, it’s clear that what is happening here is something pretty incredible…

A week later we return briefly to the Delhi children house before being driven to the Grand Hotel, and I chase her around the house and dangle her upside down by her ankles. She screams with delight (I hope) and I feel… paternal. Perhaps it’s just an unexpected consequence of this intern year, though. Alarmingly, it’s not even the first time it’s happened.

In my time in India I have probably spent fifteen minutes around Mouscan, but the memory of her sticks with me even as we head back home.


(courtesy of Ben Osborne)

In Guwahati we also meet David, a high-school teacher from a Christian family who speaks incredible English. He has, in fact, been an English teacher, and we chat about Macbeth and his love of Othello before he tells us about how he got into drugs. This is his fourth time in Asha Bhawan – he has been in the programme in Calcutta twice, and once in Delhi, but keeps going back. “But God just won’t let me go!” he tells me. “This time it’s for real.”

I hope he lasts. In the lounge he tells us his story, and it’s hard to know what to say to it. I have no experience of drug addiction and anything I have to offer in the way of advice sounds pretty trite. I mutter a prayer and hope that God will communicate something just through my being there. After all, Paul claims in 2 Corinthians 4 (the passage that I was meditating on throughout this trip) that

What we proclaim is not ourselves, but Jesus Christ as Lord, with ourselves as your servants for Jesus’ sake. For God, who said “let light shine out of darkness”, has shone in our hearts to give us the light of the knowledge of the glory of God in the face of Jesus Christ.

I guess we were never in India because we had all the answers, or even because we are especially good at this stuff. That was never the case, even if some of the guys we met here may have treated us like that.

So much for saving the world…


In the evenings we gratefully eat our over-salted vegetable stew on top of its mountain of rice and we watch terrible films on TV as a house – although at least they are terrible English films this time round. I am gutted when the story of Al Pacino’s lecturer, who has 88 minutes left to live in 88 Minutes, cuts out after only sixteen owing to a power cut, but I man up and get over it – we all have to make sacrifices for mission, after all. Instead we light candles and talk into the night.

In Guwahati there are far fewer dramatic happenings, although we do see a couple of elephants, which is fairly dramatic (Owen and Roland still insist that they saw people playing polo on elephants in Delhi, although I’ll believe that when I see it). But that’s okay, I think. Bethel, from which we get “Betel”, means “house of God” – it’s what Jacob called the place where he wrestled with God, when he declared that “surely God was in this place, and I was not aware of it.”

And God is here, sure he is. His people and His stories are amazing, wherever you have to go to hear them. But as I write this on a train back to Oxford, they all seem a very long way away, too. There is more to say, and more stories to tell, but, although reflection is important, tomorrow work starts again, and there are plenty of stories to hear (and live out) here as well.

Completely different issues and completely different contexts, but still God’s people – in all their hilarity, with all their quirks, hang-ups and issues.

For all the challenges that India posed, meeting those people and hearing their stories counts for a lot, and I’m inclined to keep it up. Because, like I’ve said a few times, this has only just begun.

And, mostly, I’m excited to see where it’s going next, too…

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