Wednesday, February 15, 2012

All That's Gold Doesn't Glitter.

Coming into Delhi you notice the billboards first. In the finest of retail traditions they offer popularity, acceptance, community, even lifelong vitality for purchase. As with other Indian cities, there are an inordinate amount of these megalithic advertisements selling the perfect wedding. But this trip I noticed at least half of the signs were security firms, life insurance agents, or investment brokers selling the future. A light skinned and symmetrically perfect spokeswoman confesses that her future is secure, not tied to the fickle nature of gold investments. Her obvious genetic clone on the building opposite begs to differ and offers gold as the smart buy with low transaction fees. Still another of her perfect sisters offers strength through diversity, while yet another self-praises her company's singularity of vision standing in front of a stack of gleaming gold bullion.  

Behind these signs are the crumbling facades of concrete buildings and beneath them the lifeblood of India, her working poor. They have traveled from well before dawn to sell their vegetables, their spices, their wreaths of fresh cut flowers. If they ever look up...I watch and noone ever looks up....they do not see the signs as advertisements, they see only a jury of their betters, the oligarchy of the leisure class. 

I woke up in my $30 hotel in Mahipalpur, Delhi with the exact impression that my fingers were in just sprung fissures in that Dutch dam of young Hans Brinker. I had shivered and sweat through two shirts and deep into my sheets with what? Malaria would have made more sense. The city bleated all night. Rusting bustling beasts of burden sounding off in such shrill desperation as if to the slaughter. Whether the dam metaphor was a function of my fever or the other way round, the sense of futility of the last few days clung to everything. I changed my shirt again. Another crack. Another drip drip drip. 

Dial 9 for the front desk. Free breakfast 6-10. 4 pieces of toast and English-ish tea. Try to sort out the last three days.

We found Kanchan in the middle of the road. The dim yellow of the motorcycle headlight caught a piece of fabric in a horrifyingly familiar shape and we screamed stop! I was on my knees, sure to find a corpse, gently resting the weight of my hand where a shoulder should be. A groan and movement and I scooped blanket, body and hope in one quick motion and hurried to a flat spot behind a wall. I pulled the blanket back a bit to reveal a woman, child-sized and skeletal.

Abraham spoke to her in Oriya but she was disoriented. I comforted her face with my hand, inspected her blanket with my cell phone light. So much matted filth told her time on the streets had been both long and hard. She shifted to settle in for a night's sleep when her blanket fell back from her face leaving the top of her head exposed for the first time. The entire back of her scalp was missing. Six inches of hair and skin gone in a perfectly horrible circle. Flies covered the swollen fester where leaves and dirt didn't. 'Oh God' was all I could muster. I finally spoke. Begged Abraham to hail a cab. I scooped up 55 pounds of tragedy again and carefully sat in the back seat with her cradled in my arms resting across my lap.  

The cab followed Abraham and Narges to the hospital, some 1/2 mile away. The driver, immune to the gravity of the situation through ignorance or callousness made small talk. Where was I from? Why was I here? Was I a Christian? I mumbled the answers between prayers. Again only- 'Oh God'.

There is no ER at the Rayagada public hospital, only a glorified reception area with one bed, a desk, and a doctor in whose hands all patient's fates rest. I laid Kanchan on the bed and stroked her face and arm as we waited for Abraham to speak to the doctor. After much conversation we were able to ascertain several important and troubling facts. First, they would not treat her. The wound was old, maybe 2 months. She had been admitted then and even once since then, but with no one to watch her she had run away. Second, we were the 'pocket book of the American government' getting paid to bring people to the hospital. And thirdly, the ER bed was for patients, their patients, of which Kanchan was not.

At the very moment when I thought my brain would explode all its anger and frustration through my mouth a nurse appeared from somewhere and none to gently cleaned and bandaged Kanchan's head wound. At least it was something. It bought us a little time. The doctor in the most dismissive tone and body language you've ever seen suggested the private hospital at Bissamcuttack 2 hrs away. I nearly bit my tongue in two fighting the urge to ask him 'What if this was your mother!!??'

With no other recourse we took Kanchan back to the house and made a pallet on the floor. I ran all over Rayagada to find her some rice and vegetables and by the time I had returned the mood was better. Kanchan was alert and communicative and with great appetite. We all watched with smiles and thankfulness. Our patient seemed stable and tomorrow we would see about her head wound. 

Kanchan sleeps in the hall by the door.
Bissamcuttack is only 50km from the house but is a two hour drive across rough terrain and through perpetual road construction. We arrived a little after 10am and the staff was quick to care for our patient. They cleaned and re-dressed the wound properly and took all of Kanchan's vitals. Abraham discussed the situation with the doctors. The preliminary suggestions were to do some blood work and keep her overnight. Someone would have to stay and I was the only one that had no real responsibilities the next day so I volunteered. The head doctor was gone for the day but would meet with me at 8 am. Abraham would try and find a home back in Rayagada to place her in. Kanchan slept through it all.

8am came with more questions than answers. Hospital policies collided with legal culpabilities and my brain was boiling again. Un-officially the hospital would do what was best for the patient. If someone was willing to stay and to pay they would treat her. The prognosis was 2 to 3 months for total rehabilitation. Officially there was no end to the legal concerns. Who was she? Is there family? Had we tried to contact her family? Had she been abused (with the implication of what if she said one of us abused her)? Was she part of a forced begging outfit? Were they looking for her? Had we contacted the police? Why hadn't we contacted the police? Who would be responsible for her? Was I able and willing to do whatever it took to see the patient well?

What would Mr. Brinker do? So few fingers. 

The head doctor sensing that I was in over my head invited me to his house for breakfast. There had been no luck finding a place for Kanchan. His advice to me was to take her to the police. She was stable. Her vitals very good. Her wound in a surprisingly good state. If I would pay he would arrange an ambulance from a private company whom he trusted to take us both there. I would tell the police the simple version of the story and they would search for her family. At worst she would be locked up in an asylum. 

More cracks. And Kanchan would slip right through. I was sick to my stomach. 

The ride back to Rayagada was numbing. Kanchan slept and I prayed. The police station was not even a half a mile from where we had found her. I went inside to explain the situation. Two hours later, having resisted the urge to give into the requested bribes, the ambulance driver hands me the phone. It is his boss. 'What is going on?' he asks sounding truly concerned. I explain that they will not let me leave. They will not take responsibility for the patient. They want a 15,000 rupee bribe. He says he will call their boss's boss and then call me back. 30 minutes later he calls again. He tells me to request to see the chief of police. His boss has spoken to him. I do just that, leaving behind a room full of disappointed empty palms. If you have ever seen a Bollywood film that caricatures the Indian police....well they are not far off. 

The Chief's office was especially tidy. Two men sat at his desk discussing wedding invitations. After ten minutes of this he smiled at me and asked me to sit. From my chair I could see his computer was open to Facebook. He was instant messaging someone and still pondering the merits of gilded print vs. full color invitations. I asked simply, 'Am I free to go?' He asked who I was and for me to repeat the story, for what must have been the tenth time. I found myself saying two phrases over and over. 'I just tried to do the right thing' and 'She's one of your people please help her'. He smiled at my earnestness, my naivete and again I asked if I was free to go. He nodded in the affirmative. Outside the youngest of the officers waited nervously. He asked again for money. I was floored. I told him we'd settle this once and for all. Would he care to step back inside with his boss? He deferred and I left. I called the owner of the ambulance service. He promised he would find a place for Kanchan. I walked for a mile until I was calm enough to hail a cab.

Ironically, Kanchan means 'gold' in Sanskrit but who invests in that type of gold? No returns, no future in that. Of course it is not the Indian continent that has a corner on selfishness. All over the world people's lives are measured against their worth to society. All over the world mankind places their hope in shiny things, if nothing else their comfort. And all the while, the truly priceless and precious souls around them suffer into oblivion. 

The scripture speaks of an age when gold will be thrown into the streets as worthless. When silver and gold will become useless to save us. As I write this gold is trading near its all-time high and everyone seems to be clamoring along blindly to get their share. But why? Because it shines? Because it is rare? What is more rare than an individual person? Gold can and will be melted and turned into whatever shape we desire. An idol for our bookshelf...the chains that bind our necks? 

Child slave mining our precious gold.
Sorry if this was a bit of a long-winded ramble. So heavy-hearted today. God send the repairers of the breach. Those that can plug up the cracks and stop the flood. Please convict us of what is worthless and what is priceless. And God please comfort Kanchan wherever she might be. I know she is infinitely more precious to You than gold. 


  1. What a hard and frustating position to be in. I am happy you were able to show Kanchan love, and pray she really is somewhere that she is being cared for. May we never become numb to the suffering.

    1. Thank you so much Rebecca for always being so encouraging. I just want her to be ok....

  2. Mark Langhan , I thank God you were there to save that young girl. I believe God placed you there to know how much of a difference you alone as one person can make out of the works of Love, even in a world full of so much greed. My dreams are to one day be able to travel around the world & help those in desperate need. If my efforts could just save one life, or give one person hope into the future, then I'd know I spent a life worth living. Thank you for yours :)