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One of my earliest memories is of the old man on my street, a mystic who wore only a loincloth. He was tall, with matted hair and piercing eyes, quite fearsome to look at. Mud was caked all over his bony frame, his face was scarred by deep gashes that were self-inflicted from his religious devotion, and his skin was burned by constant exposure to the torrid heat of the midday sun. "How did he come to look like this?" I wondered as a boy. "What had he done to himself?"
I found out soon enough. Two or three times each week he would appear on our street; then, almost like a coiled rope unwinding, he would lie down on that filthy road and begin his routine. Cow dung and dog droppings littered the path, to say nothing of the stones or sharp objects that cluttered it as well, yet he would roll down the length of the street with a howl that sounded as if it came from the depths of a cavern.
"Govinda! Govinda! Govinda!"
I had no clue what his cry was about - I only knew it terrified me.
It was an astonishing sight to a five-year-old, and I recall scampering to my mother and asking her, "What is he doing? What is he doing?"
"He's OK," she replied. "Just ignore him."
"But what is he doing?" I would implore. "Why is he doing it?"
"He's calling to his god!" she said.
That did not quench my curiosity. But I did not pursue it as long as he continued to roll away from me, and his voice became a faint but haunting sound in the distance: "Govinda!"
The old mystic was only one of the striking sights on our street, a place that teemed with life in my eyes. On that street, I believed I saw everything that living represented. The world there was filled with sounds and screams and, yes, smells of different kinds. Silence was at a premium. Every morning at sunrise, any seeming quietness was broken by the shouts of the street vendors, hawking the items they were selling. "Onions! Milk! Vegetables! Knife sharpeners!" When these sellers came to our door, they would look through our open but barred windows. There was no privacy to speak of. We stepped outside onto the street, and the road itself was so narrow that a car couldn't pass through but only hand-pulled or cycle rickshaws. Outside were stray animals and people, each about some pursuit. Sometimes it was a beggar at the door, sometimes a leprous hand reaching for a handout with a plea for compassion. Life with all its hurts and pains squinted at you, squatted before you, and stared you down daily. This was the street where I grew up.
Life in our neighborhood was lived out amid this jumble of sounds, sights, and scents. There, on the street every day, friends played soccer or cricket. Laughter, cries, angry outbursts - all the emotions were in evidence. Around the corner, a small shop sold potato-crisp snacks and spicy Indian treats, and the best thing you could do was go into the shop and have your uncle or your friend buy you a treat of some kind. Flavors were in the air - the smell of oil heated to its peak, frying food of some kind - and taking it all in was an all-day activity, with someone buying a morsel or two and munching on it as they went on their way. From sunrise to sunset, people of every stripe and need passed by.
Then at dusk, when the streetlamps came on, students came out of their homes to continue their studies under lamplight. In some homes, there was no electricity; in others, parents sent their children outside to study under the streetlamps to conserve electricity. There was often a tussle as to who claimed a lamppost first. Once that was settled, the fortunate student sat with his back resting against the post. Most of his scalp was shaved except for an area called the bodi, and he tied this part to the lamppost behind him. That way, whenever he began to doze off and nod forward, the pull on his hair kept him awake. This was the discipline of study in those days.
Now, more than a half century later, as I again walk the street where I was born, memories come alive with a wave of nostalgia. I find it hard to believe this is where I had my beginnings. The narrow lane has been widened and paved. Still, it would be an adventure to try to wedge a larger car in here. Yet taxi drivers do it regularly and intrepidly, and as you watch you wonder if the metal shrinks when they approach an object that seems too close to avoid a scrape. An Indian friend of mine says that whenever he's asked if India has a Disney World, he answers, "No, we just take a taxi ride. That is breathtaking enough."
The first time I brought my wife here, we couldn't get to the door of the house on this street where I was born and to which we returned to spend our vacations. A water buffalo had stopped in front of the door. That was twenty years ago, and I was completely overwhelmed then. The memories come flooding back so quickly and sharply: the neem tree in the backyard that we used as a wicket for our cricket games; the window to the room where my whole family slept; a kitchen with a clay coal fire in which to do all the cooking - the hot Indian flatbreads that would come out of the oven puffing fresh and make you hungry just by their smell, the curries that were lip-smacking good, the delicacies that to this day charm my imagination.
What a world that was for me as a youngster!
* * *
This house where I spent many a summer belonged to my uncle and was like our second home. It used to be number 7, but now it is number 13, and above the doorpost a large eye has been painted to ward off evil spirits. A Hindu family lives here now, a lovely couple with two young daughters, and I've made it a practice to visit them whenever I come back to Chennai (the historic city formerly known to the world as Madras in the state of Tamil Nadu, next to Kerala). The little girls have fallen in love with my Canadian wife, Margie. Every time she accompanies me, they giggle excitedly. They love her sandy-blonde hair and delightedly say, "Oh, Auntie, Auntie, I love your blue eyes!"
This simple little house is like most others on the street, very small, made up of four rooms, each measuring about ten feet by ten. Even these small rooms are carefully compartmentalized. There may be a stove next to a bed, that sort of thing. In fact, when my family returned here to visit, your bed was a chair, a desk, or whatever you wanted to make it for the moment. During those long summer stays, there were twelve of us altogether, including our relatives, squeezed into this tiny place. But we never once thought of complaining. This was life, and this is the way we grew up.
I am sitting with the present owners in a room that has been further divided into two. He and his brother have had a falling-out and have divided the house into these two compartments. Each family now uses two rooms. The girls probably sleep on the floor, just as my siblings and I did fifty years ago. Their mother offers me tea - there is always the beautiful custom of tea in India. This, too, takes me back. It is a marvel to sit here drinking tea with this family in the house that was my uncle's years ago. They plead with me to stay for a meal, but much to their disappointment I have an appointment elsewhere, a speaking engagement.
It is an August evening, and it is hot - around 100 degrees. I remember having ceiling fans that kept the air circulating, but there was little else to cool you. You simply got used to it. And there were various other ways to manage. We had thatched-straw drapes - called khus-khus - that were woven together. You could water these homespun creations with a hose to moisten them, and then, as the breeze blew through the thatched straw, it cooled things somewhat.
I have brought the two girls of this family a bag full of gifts. Margie and I always prepare something for them at home before we come. And they're always appreciative that we think of them.
The father asks, "How was your trip? Why are you here this time?"
"I'm speaking in various places here in Chennai. Then I'll be going up to Delhi in a few days."
This man is a marketing director for a small firm, with a master's degree that he attained by going to night school. His English is broken, as is my Tamil, but between the two of us we make a sensible conversation. The girls do fairly well with English; the mother speaks none at all. They know I live in the United States, and one of the girls ventures to ask what city I live in.
"In Atlanta," I say.
They begin to tell me their dreams. One wants to be a teacher, the other a doctor.
"A doctor," I think, for I also was a premed student at one time.
The father tells me, in so many words, that his greatest burden is for his children to get an education, because none of his family did. Yet he doesn't have the wherewithal to send the two girls to college. "Anything you can do to help them get the best education in America or Canada is my heart's deepest desire."
I tell him we could help. Our ministry provides scholarships toward education for families in need. His eyes get moist, hoping that this dream for his children might come true.
The last time I was here I tried to give the father some money, but he wouldn't take it. He said, "You gave to me last time, sir. I am just honored you have come. That is enough for me, to see your face."
So I handed it to one of the girls instead, telling her, "I want you each to have a bicycle to ride to school." They beamed with gratitude, and now they ride those bikes to school every day.
Later, the father and I discover in our conversation that this house was sold to his father by one of my uncles. Family ties run deep here, coloring virtually every detail of life. I tell him that just a few doors down is the home that my mother's family owned, the house where I was born.
That house was called "Dalmejiem." The name was an acronym that included every member of my mother's family: Devaram, the father; Agnes, the mother; Leela, the oldest daughter; Margaret; Elizabeth; James; my mother, Isabella; Ebenezer; and Manickam, the surname.
Now the girls are begging to show me the tree in their backyard. With their mother's permission, they lead me to the very same neem tree that my cousins and I used as the wicket for our cricket games. The girls tell me they worship that tree for its antibiotic qualities. Every now and then, the mother lights a fire, and they hold a ceremony to pay homage. They tell me that she goes to the temple every day. "Every day, Uncle, she goes there," they assure me, calling me by the affectionate term that Indian youths use to address their familiar elders.
Their mother's eyes reveal the inner quest for piety, and my heart longs to tell her that God does not live in temples made with human hands. I trust that the time we spend together during my trips here will present the right moment.
* * *
It is not for sentimental reasons that I visit this family in my uncle's former home. They are simply more of the beautiful people of my homeland with whom God has chosen that I cross paths. The truth is, I'm happiest when I'm with people such as these, people with whom I'm at ease. Here in my homeland I am most free to be me, with no one to recognize me because of my profession. And I get to do what I love best - simply to be with people. It reminds me of my youth when I surrounded myself with friends.
But the reality is, in the next month I will be speaking before the United Nations on the opening day of their assembly. I have been asked to address the ambassadors on the subject of "Navigating with Absolutes in a Relativistic World." The contrasts between where I am now, in this humble house, and where I am going to be in a matter of weeks are too vast to fully process. Yet, there is no doubt that God prepared me for this life I now lead, connecting the varied and ironic threads of my experience into a beautiful tapestry as He would see fit.
It is not a natural drive within me to appear in such a prominent place as the United Nations. Yes, it is a privilege I hold dear, and a sacred trust. But I never would have wanted to engineer something like this. That was my father's life. Because of the position to which he rose in the government of India, my siblings and I shook hands with prime ministers and presidents. We met and mixed with international leaders; we even entertained ambassadors and their entourages. The wealthy and the powerful are one side of India. Yet, I can't explain why today I shrink from such a public life. I can only say that it has to do with the way the Lord has framed me. I truly do feel for a world in need. And I relate with ease to the ordinary person.
Even so, the last time I came here to Chennai, to the very street of my birth, a man came running out of his house and called me by name. "Raviji! Raviji!" he cried, using a term of reverence. "What are you doing here?" He had heard me speak in Amsterdam some years before and now as I passed in front of him, speaking to someone in Tamil, he was shocked to know that I understand his language, indeed, that this was the very street where I was born.
* * *
India is a nation with polarities of incredible proportions. Some of the world's greatest minds come from here, making great advances in medicine, philosophy, and in the world of the Internet and high technology. Yet in the midst of this, of course, is dire deprivation and longing for a better way of life.
In this subcontinent, the raw reality of life stares you in the face. For that very reason, it has always been easy for me to see Jesus on these streets. Any time I read the accounts in the Gospels, I can envision the Lord with the lame man in all his bare need on the side of the road, or the leprous body longing for a touch. After all, that's what I saw growing up, every day. Moreover, each time I read of the Lord walking in the streets of Bethany or Jerusalem and telling a parable, I see my Indian culture, which also deals in parables.
I see the tailor who sets up his machine in the open air on the street corner, wedged between other craftsmen and craftswomen, shoe shiners, fabric menders - all businesspeople who eke out a living from wherever they can find a small, square space. The people here know how to manage with very little. Yet, sometimes I wonder how they make a living out of it. Theirs are lives full of burdens and chores, and they're so very hard-pressed for money just to get by. Some are forced to set up home on the side of the road in a little shack. Others live on the streets in poverty, without even the advantage of a roof. And it's virtually impossible for the lower classes to rise upward.
This unvarnished reality must be one reason why India is the largest producer of movies in the world. The movies that are made here are the best barometer of humanity's gnawing need for an escape hatch. Through movies, you can escape to romance, to justice, to the fulfilling marriage you never had, to upholding the cause of the poor. Yet, in spite of the escapism that movies promise, you can never escape the sharp edges of life in India. It's always there to greet you as you exit the theater.
At the same time, there is also evident on these streets the very real resilience of the human spirit. People make a go of things with what they have. As I look from one side of the street to the other, I see those who will survive against all odds and who have learned to cope. India also is a deeply artistic culture. You see it even in this muddled-up, mixed-up, mishmash of a marketplace, in the way a merchant hangs beads or arranges his cushions with a pleasing aesthetic.
Each time I walk the streets in my homeland now, it's a matter of good news/bad news to me. The good news is, I am able to see clear-eyed here - to behold life and all its pain. The bad news is, the pain is so overwhelming that I can get desensitized to it, and one has to be careful of that. It's why I keep telling my children to never forget from whence they ultimately came.
As I walk my home street now, I'm hit with the reality that my own life came out of nothing. By the time I was a teenager, when my family returned here on vacations to my mother's home in Chennai, in the South, from our home in Delhi in northern India, I realized how small her family's house was and how little my cousins had. I would ask my mother, "Why are they so poor?" By then, coming to Chennai always reminded me of the meager side of our existence.
Now, whenever I return, I have a yearning in my soul to be a solution to this. How can I help the very people whose blood is in my veins? Their food, their language, their ragtag existence from day to day, their struggle to survive - all of that is in me.
Excerpted from Walking from East to West by Ravi Zacharias R. S. B. Sawyer Copyright © 2006 by Ravi Zacharias. Excerpted by permission.
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