Healing In India

AND THEN SHAMALA LAUGHED - the story of a healing, from Tom Sutherland in India. Abridged from the new booklet available from HHI.

When God laid out the Indian jungles, He planted groves of bamboos and clumps of reeds, and so provided for Joseph, the reed worker, and his wife Shamala. They and their daughter Suji live in a small mud-brick leaf-thatched house on the edge of the tropical rain-forest, in a way of life that fades away into unremembered milleniums.

From the jungle they cut reeds, competing for them with roaming elephants. And from time to time, some reed workers who have paid the two rupees for a forestry pass, do not return. They weave the peels into mats and baskets which they sell on market day to buy rice, and vegetables.

Shamala and Joseph held out a paper to me, but without conviction. The letterhead reads: ‘Department of Thoracic and Cardiovascular Surgery’, and tells me that 11-year-old Suji has been registered for open-heart surgery, at a cost of 40,000 Rupees – that is, about six hundred pounds in England.

"We told the doctor," Joseph said, "that we have no money - only debts".

Even in normal circumstances, Shamala and Joseph would expect to have to raise only one-eighth of that as a dowry to get their daughter married – and for that they will sell, pawn, borrow, and be in debt for the rest of their lives.

I explain to them how to apply to the Indian Prime Minister’s Relief Fund, and to other funds, and how I will help them fill in the forms. But if their ears are listening , their hearts are not.

"We have decided to rely on prayer. God will heal our daughter".

I do not know what I should reply. How many has God cured, and how many have relied on prayer and not been healed? Should we rely on prayer or co-operate with men to whom God has given a vocation of healing?

My easy acceptance of their decision is not entirely honest - I am already in debt and beseiged with needs, so this is Rs.40000/- I don’t have to find. So we say a prayer together, and may God have mercy on my dishonesties.

When they arrive again, it is on a day when I am having to give people a succession of ‘no’ answers – no, I don't have money for a scan for this child, no I can’t get any more medicines on credit, no I haven’t any rice to give today, no, I can’t give this man the fare to get to the hospital.

And in Malayalam (the language of Kerala) there is no meaningful ‘I'm sorry’, there is just the harsh negative – ‘no’.

And at the end of the queue are Shamala and Joseph

"The operation is set for January. The Government has sanctioned Rs30,000/- , and you must help us with Rs.10,000/-"

They could have been asking for a cup of tea. My voice conveyed a bankruptcy, only the lesser part of which was financial. If there ever had been love it had been soaked dry by the needs and the numbers.

"I can’t do everything, look at all these other people – you’ll have to go around and collect.”

I found myself speaking harshly. And Shamala was crying.

Their daughter was so ill, there was this awful operation, they had nothing all day but a cup of black tea, they had had to borrow the fare to come … and now Brother Tom was angry with them. She stood there weeping and weeping, and her tears washed over this unjust judge.

"Please - I. have some friends in England who will want to help. But you must stop crying. Come let's go and have a cup of tea."

(And as we share a cup of tea, I remember with thankfulness Peter, who also having been found wanting, went on loving Jesus.)

And when next they come it is with a list of what the doctor says must be bought – the necessary hardware to mend their daughter's heart.

On market days, they are used to buying some vegetables, and sugar, and maybe a litre of kerosene. They will haggle to get four small fish for the price of three, and spend in total Rs.35/- , or about fifty pence. Today the shopping list is of a different order – a vast list of surgical technicality, and Joseph has wads of notes in a plastic carrybag – the government grant has been issued, and he is handling amounts as he has only seen in the hands of movie bank-robbers.

As we turn to leave from the surgical supplier Joseph stops, and says that we have forgotten to pray" The proprietor, a man of the Hindu faith, devoutly bows his head – before many days have passed, it will be the goodness of this man that will save their Suji's life.

Two teams perform the operation, one opening Suji's chest to perform plumbing of incredible intricacy, while a support rushes drugs from the pharmacy, a bottle of blood from the blood bank, a sample to the emergency lab. And there all the time is Shamala to be comforted, and to be told to stop crying.

In the evening, I find the family encamped and happy outside the Cardiovascular intensive Care unit – the operation has gone well, Shamala and Joseph are smiling, and Suji has regained consciousness. But when I return the next day, Joseph is grim-faced and Shamala in tears. Suji has the yellow sickness – hepatitis. I recoil from the implications.

And as we are speaking, the door opens and a white shrouded Suji is wheeled out on a trolley, enmeshed in a complex of tubes, with a support team holding bottles of blood and intravenous solutions. I glimpse her face – grey, transparent and utterly vulnerable, as are the faces of the desperately ill. How could that frail body, already so battered, cope with this new and enormous complication?

The door closes behind her and we pray.

As I leave the hospital, I meet Dr. Ramnayaranan. He tells me it was a simple operation, but that renal failure is a possible side-effect of open heart surgery. He tells me there is no need to worry, but I wonder if his face does not contradict his comforting words.

The night brings doubts. Was it right to put Suji through this? Had I not been warned through Joseph and Shamala? Had we rejected the Spirit’s leading? Should we have relied on faith and prayer and allowed God to perform the healing? Doubts and doubts, when the order of the hour was faith.

It was after 10pm when I reached their village, to find that a tiny congregation had been fasting and praying. I told the pastor of Suji, and they prayed fervently. "We will pray every day – she will be all right. We must have faith."

When I go to the hospital, it is always to Shamala’s face I look – the news of the day is printed there in tears or smiles. A vigil for a family in the hospital may be three or four days – it is as well that Shamala does not know she will wait outside that door for 16 days.

The daily blood tests go on, and the money has run out. And then on Sunday, they greet me with the news that Suji has had another operation – the doctors have replaced a heart valve.

But how? That would cost Rs 80,000/- (over a thousand pounds) and in Indian hospitals, cash is the key to action – buy the needful or you die. How can an operation costing Rs80,000/- take place without recourse to money?

The answer is with Dr. Ramnarayanan. He trained at Great Ormond Street, where he matured his medical ethic that surgey for the poor is a priority – and it was he who, after a long day when it was time for him to go home, stayed to make a telephone call which saw the surgical supplier send the valve immediately.

It is a week before Suji is back in a general ward, three weeks before she returns home, and it will be six months that she must rest. To pay for a bed for her costs Joseph and Shamala Rs200/- which they do not have (three pounds sterling!), and the carpenter abuses them for the money, so Shamala cries.

I tell them that our friends in England who helped with the operation want to print the story of Suji, and that I shall write the story of how long Suji was in hospital – and at the recollection of it, Shamala reaches for the corner of her sari as her tears overflow.

"Shamala," I warn her. "I’m going to write it all down, and it will be published, and everyone in England, even the Queen, will know that I got angry with you, and that every five minutes you start crying!"

And then Shamala laughed.