To be honest, traveling with my boss, Devaraj is not on my list of favorite things to do. It’s because it’s usually not a quiet & uneventful experience. I remember there was this one time I was in a car with him and we got pulled over by some local cops. As soon as the cop pulled us over, we all knew what it was for; he wanted a few bucks for coffee. And I instantly felt bad, not for us, but for him. Of all the vehicles driving down that lane, why did he have the misfortune of stopping us? As soon as our vehicle came to a halt, Devaraj jumped out and went to the one who had pulled us over. I of course stayed in the car (it was hot outside and there was air conditioning inside) but I managed to look out and see and hear the “talk”. Devaraj began with the history of India and it’s fight for freedom and independence and then went on to the need for each citizen to preserve this free society by doing what’s right, it reached it’s climax as he told the officer of his personal responsibility to do what’s right. By that time, the officer had lost not only the revenue of our car but also of the three other cars he could have stopped if he had not had to listen to the “talk”. It ended with the officer pleading with Devaraj to get back in his car and go on with his day. There are many more that I could write about but it would take a while. I think he has a natural bent towards correcting wrongs and I have a natural bent towards staying under the radar and being compliant. On a macro level, it makes sense, it’s what’s allowed this work to begin some 26 years ago and has given hope for many women, men, and children. But I got to tell you, on a micro level, it can be annoying.
So I wasn’t too excited when he asked me to join him and our Medical Director, Dr. Prashant to spend two days in an area where we are starting a new work to build a community and help women and children that are highly vulnerable. To be honest, I didn’t like the idea because that would mean I would have to step outside of the role that I am more comfortable with, which is sitting behind the laptop and writing about the work and would have to actually step into a dirty, poor, and entrapped community. I also didn’t like it because it meant I would have to travel with the boss.
As expected, it wasn’t quiet. Dr. Prashant and Devaraj are used to traveling into these areas, which requires packing light. I am not so I brought along my trusty laptop with it’s converters, additional battery pack, my kindle, an actual book in case the Kindle battery runs out, a notebook, wipes, a flashlight, additional batteries for the flashlight, clothes for the morning, clothes for the night, and a well equipped toiletry bag (well equipped because I always take the free soap and shampoos at hotels). All this required two bags and as I met the other two at the airport, Devaraj took a look at me and started laughing. He and Dr. Prashant had each brought one backpack. As we came out to the plane, I realized I was getting on a puddle jumper and there was no way my bags were going to fit in the overhead compartment. The flight attendant offered to store it in cargo and I gladly accepted. We landed in a small airport and because of me; we had to wait at the baggage carousel. To make matters worse, my bag wasn’t on the carousel. Knowing the protocol, I went over to the staff and explained the situation. He told me to go over to the customer service desk and fill out a lost baggage form. I promptly began looking for a blue pen to be sure I was compliant with form filling regulations. As I began looking, I heard Devaraj talking to the airline staff and asking how it was possible that a plane so small could lose a piece of luggage. As they were talking, the plane was starting it’s engine to turn around and fly back to Mumbai. The next thing I heard was Devaraj out on the tarmac shouting that he would not allow this plane to turn around until the bag was found. I turned around and looked on with horror in my face and my blue pen in my hand. I was sure the equivalent of Homeland Security was going to lock all three of us up. How would I explain this to my wife? Thankfully, we didn’t get locked up and the staff realised it would be a good idea to have one more look inside the cargo area. And sure enough, there was my bag in a section they had not previously checked. On a macro level, a wrong was righted, but on a micro level, there were some annoyed airline staff.
We spent the next two days with our outreach team, some of them who were once taken from this very area and trafficked into the brothels of Mumbai. BTC had rescued them many years ago and they decided they wanted to be a part of the work of helping others. It was actually some of them that had asked Devaraj if a work in this area could start. We spent time listening to the ladies, praying together and then walking into the communities. We met with young ladies that are in the flesh trade. For some of them, they had a blank look; they are not very interested in either talking or listening to us. I noticed one young lady in particular, she was pretty but it was masked with this blank look. By the looks of it, she could not have been older than 25. While we were all sitting around, a middle aged man came to her as if he was stopping for groceries on his way home. She half acknowledged him and he walked into her room, she followed. About ten minutes later, he walked out, got on his motorbike and took off. A minute later, she came out, the blank look intact. The most beautiful expression of love had been debased to an act I often see among stray dogs in heat. I think what troubled me most was the blank look. It meant there was no fight left in her, it meant there was no hope left. For her and the others with her, our outreach team has to remain annoying; there is no choice but to keep visiting, to keep talking to them, and to keep reminding them that they are not forgotten. It’s far more important than lost luggage; they are dealing with lives that have been lost.
We then met with children, ages ranging from five to thirteen all crammed up in a small room, trying to learn something from a teacher whose urgent need is to create order in the chaos before being able to deliver any form of education. They come eager to learn; their moms come and drop off the children at our doorsteps, with great hope that education will free their little ones from the life these women have had to live. This little room is a stopgap that we have created really to just keep them safe from the outside and also to introduce the children to learning. Our greater desire is to bring them out of this horrible place and have them safe at our Academy. But it’s taking time. As I was watching the chaos of this makeshift classroom, I asked my team members why these mothers don’t let us bring them to our Academy. It’s because they don’t trust us yet. So we need to keep coming back, loving them, being that annoying person that let’s them know that there is reason to hope again. Without exaggeration, life is in the balance.
We packed our bags the next morning (it took me a little longer to pack up) and headed back to Mumbai. On my way back, I realized that often, justice requires one to be annoying, it sometimes requires us to shout at a plane on the tarmac.