Wednesday, February 1, 2012

Indian Love Story Day 20: A Sad Face.

Laughter is universal. It transcends every culture, language and accent. If I close my eyes the children outside my window could be from Arkansas or Prague. Their bellowing belly laughs crescendoing into breathless gasps of an almost pained joy...ahhh again...the music of Heaven. Absolutely friggin' delicious in spite of the pessimism of the old Indian proverb that it is impossible to find a medicine that is beneficial for health yet tastes good. Laughter is that glorious exception, it heals the heart as it strengthens the body...and oh what a taste! It lingers on the lips for hours, all cotton-candy-caramel-corn-carnival-ride kinda linger. Oh and chocolate cake and coffee. Just sayin'.

But there is a stray scripture that has always followed me home, whimpered outside my heart's door. Ecclesiastes 7:3 "Sorrow is better than laughter, because a sad face is good for the heart."

Yesterday Abraham and I left around 3pm and drove 50km to a village where there is a orphanage for boys. The ride itself was a wonder that saw us crossing a bamboo bridge-- me on foot and Abraham (below) on his motorbike. To call the engineering of said bridge suspect would be to paint with too wide a brush, better to say that certain individual slats of bamboo were well past their shelf life.

The slow, serpentine climb through the mountains afforded me time to watch the city of Rayagada shrink to plaything size. Women with their bright bundles becoming ants ferrying berries until finally we were over the ridge and the lovely little city was no more.

The temperature began to cool and the air freshened as a valley opened up before us. The road changed from paved, to dirt, to rock trail, and back again as often as Abraham had to shift gears to accommodate the endless changes in pitch and terrain. The bike whined under our weight until a long flatter stretch gave us back lost time. Cactus stood in salute under sagging power lines that once were pulled taut into the future. But that was 40 years ago and those earnest hopes for industry and advancement have long been abandoned, the power lines giving little more than dim light for the few villages lucky enough to have been under that arbitrary bisection of the mountains.

Abraham drives from memory. We race along and then suddenly slow to turn on a trail no wider than the bike itself. There are no discernible landmarks, no road signs for sure. Directions would be impossible. Turn at the rooster. If you get to the goat you went too far. The light is softer now, the air much cooler. I make conversation with my new friend. He is quite an enigma to me. Speaks five languages and knows everyone within 500 square km. It is obvious why Narges relies so heavily on him. His expertise is of incalculable worth. 

Naxal terrorists in training. They often hide in the mountains and use car bombs to incite fear.  (photo from the web)
At each village we do not stop at or road/trail we do not take, Abraham points in a general direction and says "that is Bobita's village". "That is where Priyanka is from." I ask him more about the girls. The stories of their parents. He says most were lost to Malaria but some were ripped from the children by much more sinister means. A Naxal car bomb killed the parents of one of Assist's teenage girls leaving her and her two sisters in desperation and shock. Another girl's father shot her mother in front of her and then turned the gun on himself. 

"Sorrow is better than laughter, because a sad face is good for the heart."

We arrive at the first village and meet the boys from the home there. The whole village turns out to see the stranger and everyone is kind and generous with "Praise the Lord's", most in their native Oriya. As Abraham catches up with the elders and the home's caretaker I wander a bit to snap a few photos. Dinner comes across the road like an answer to a childhood riddle. 

It will be the first meat I've had in 7 years but far be it for me to refuse such a generous offering of welcome when so many here have so little. Deftly, but mostly because we eat in the dark, I am able put half my chicken in Abraham's bowl without anyone noticing. Pictures, praise, and a lot of prayers and it's time for us to travel another 15 km to the village where we will sleep. 

I am asked to pray for the boys before I leave. I remind them they are made in the image of their Creator. That when they see each other to remember that. When they look in the mirror to let it sink in. I tell them they are first class citizens of heaven. That they are joint-heirs with Christ. Sons of the King of Kings. Princes! They are Royalty for sure. I remind them many other things but mostly I remind them to take care of one another and to always remember to laugh. Each boy touches me before I leave. A handshake and then a tickle or two pulls grins from serious faces and soon all but a few are smiling our goodbyes. But there are several boys who still seem to be drowning in heartache.

"Sorrow is better than laughter, because a sad face is good for the heart."

I didn't fully appreciate Abraham's skill behind the handle bars until the following morning retracing the same trek in the light. But nonetheless we arrived safely in the dark at the second village to warm hearts and hot tea as the temperature started to fall more rapidly. After praise and prayer and an impromptu sermon we settle into our beds. Morning will come with three villages waiting.

The first of the mornings villages is the smallest of the five we visit. The houses are small concrete structures all attached side to side face inward as if they are all one house, sort of miniature town-homes. A young boy is brought in. After much discussion that I cannot understand the boy begins to cry and I finally have to ask Abraham what's the matter. He say the child's father died while he was an infant and the boy's mother ran off with another man when he was 2 or 3. He has lived with an aunt and at times his maternal grandfather but was placed in an orphanage from which he ran away and does not wish to return to. He was adamant about staying in the village even though the consensus was he should be placed in the orphanage of the night before. He was crying mostly from the fear he was being taken away again. We assured him he wasn't but I doubt if he really believed it. His eyes, still wet with tears, declined any and all assurances.

"Sorrow is better than laughter, because a sad face is good for the heart."

Two more villages and then the long road home with scenery of such impossible beauty. Rice fields as ornate as a zen gardens climbed up the sides of a mountain. Like a scene from Hilton's Paradise Lost. Like slabs of a giant raw emerald. The photos don't even come close to doing justice to the pristine and surreal aura the place emanates. It is the only time I ask Abraham to stop for me to take photos. 

This morning I call my son. There is a downward lilt to his tone. A certain melancholy. I do not press him for his emotions anymore than I am free with mine 7000 miles from him, unable to offer any real comfort. But I know my son. I know that sound. He is missing me as much as I am missing him. He says finally, "It's just kinda sinking in dad. How long you'll be gone." Me too son. Me too. I make a promise to call him everyday now. It is a small consolation I know, a stopgap for the floodgate I fear will open. We say goodbye until tomorrow. "I love you son" I say. "Love ya dad."

The girls break the spell of sadness. I hear them from 200 meters. "Hello Uncle!" I put away my sad face. It doesn't seem to be good for anything. Certainly not for them. They deserve laughter, they deserve my best. They are waiting on the front stoop for the sun to come over the top of the house across the street so they can shed their wraps and get going. They begin to play a badminton of sorts and some other game akin to catch a little further up the road. I sit next to Renjita, alone with her and my thoughts. She combs and re-combs her thick black hair and powders her kind face. What does it mean?

"Sorrow is better than laughter, because a sad face is good for the heart."

When Narges speaks of some of the girls, the tragedies that orphaned them and their amazing progress or recovery or whatever you want to call it, she often wonders if the girls have ever grieved, ever really confronted their losses. She wants to bring the girls to the villages they are from, to face those demons of rejection, fear, or much, much worse. And I think she's got it. I think that is what it means:

"Sorrow is better than laughter, because a sad face is good for the heart."

Sometimes to find joy we must bleed the sorrow, vent the vast pressure of our despairs. To find that laughter that can truly heal, the one not tempered by sadness, the one that billows freely, effortlessly, up from the pit of our stomachs and cannot have the wind knocked from it by despair....sometimes we have to cry and to grieve, very very deeply.

Thank you all for supporting Prishan Foundation. No one loves these girls more than Narges and no one I think knows better for them what they need than her. Thank you from the bottom of my heart for your continued generosity for the work she is doing here.


  1. That verse has so much meaning now. The things I have really grieved are much easier to revisit now...and the things that I haven't, are still hard to visit. Also, I love what you told the boys. I want to start telling people that. Keep it up, I love the picture of Narges there at the end. Oh man pictures bring things to life!

    1. I think grieving for the believer is the walking back through sorrow with Christ, seeing through His eyes, breathing the air of that place with new lungs and then reconciling our disappointment with his Sovereignty. Hard to admit sometimes he knew what would happen, didn't stop it, and still we are to praise him. But then what is faith but reckless abandonment to Him, beautiful him. Thanks Em.

  2. I am so proud of you big brother and miss you everyday..Stay safe and let us know when you will be coming home.
    Your little brother

    1. Thank you so much Paul!! Miss you guys!