I realise that I come from a very different place as compared to most of you. You come from India, whereas I come from Bharat. These are two different countries. I’ll just be telling stories, and to begin with, I want to try and summarise life as it has been for me. I’ve just turned 60 and I want to try and put that together. My father joined CMC Vellore as a Chaplain. This was back in ’64 and I was one-and-a-half years old. But this is family, where life started. I joined MBBS in 1980 in CMC Vellore. Most of what I remember from college was not the classes. I figured out a reflex during physiology class. It’s called the ischio eyelid reflex. Continuous pressure on the ischial tuberosities causes depression of the eyelids. Basically, I couldn’t stay awake in class. I slept through almost every class unless otherwise grown. So, all I can remember is basketball. I remember lots of sports, the Students Association, and the Student Christian Movement, which is where we learned to try out our faith, chew it, digest it, and come to our philosophy of life.
In 1991, Mercy and I got married in the college chapel. Mercy was doing her Masters in Maternity Nursing and I was doing my MD in Community Health at that time. And then in 1993, we returned to the Christian Hospital in Bissamcuttack, Odisha. I say ‘returned’ because I had originally worked there between ’87 and ’88. CMC has this terrific system. After you pass your MBBS, they don’t give you your certificates till you serve for two years. They call it bond. I call it finishing school because passing MBBS and becoming a doctor are totally different things. Therefore, I managed to get myself sent to Orissa for my second year. I totally fell for the place. People in Vellore think we are sacrificing our lives serving the poor. We’re not sacrificing anything. We’re enjoying what we do, and God, in His wisdom, has given us this opportunity. People pay money to see places like that; we get it for free, with the salary as a bonus.
People in Vellore think we are sacrificing our lives serving the poor. We’re not sacrificing anything. We’re enjoying what we do, and God, in His wisdom, has given us this opportunity. People pay money to see places like that; we get it for free, with the salary as a bonus.
So, this hospital was started in 1954. It’s now 200 bedded. It’s part of the Jaipur Evangelical Lutheran Church. It has 200 beds, five theatres, and is busy as it is the biggest hospital, within a radius of 150-200 kilometres. It’s in the tribal hills of South Orissa, Rayagada district. Beautiful area. We’re into nursing education, we run schools, we do community work, and there’s a whole team, about 360 of us who work there. Mercy’s work has been in nursing education, so when we joined, we were training ANMs. In 1996 we started General Nursing and in 2018 B.Sc. Nursing, and so her passion has been to watch young girls from the KBK districts come in timid and shy, and come out as empowered nurses going back to their own communities. We take girls only from Orissa; we train them for Orissa. My own work has been in community health. The first time I joined there in ’87, there was an epidemic of meningitis. More people died of meningitis in our area than of COVID this time, and I realised that for every hundred who got the disease, one came to the hospital. I call it the reverse Good Shepherd story. 99 are lost, one is found, and we are committed to the one that was found and missing the 99. In our country, we are people of the numerator. We’re very poor at denominators, and therefore, I found that you had to look for the denominator, and that’s why I did Community Health. My first few years were great fun walking from village to village, sometimes 10 kilometres, 20 kilometres.
I was living my dream, knapsack medicines, so much work to do, and I realised quickly that growing up in Tamil Nadu, I had got everything on a platter. You may not understand how privileged you are to live in Tamil Nadu, you crib, but you don’t know what you’re talking about. Come out and you’ll understand.
One of the problems with development is that we define development as trying to make other people like us. Yes, and your definition of the zoo depends on which side of the bars you’re on, and therefore, if you really want to make a difference, you have to cross over and develop an insider perspective. We started doing community dreaming sessions with villages, asking villagers to dream of where they want to be, what they want to do, and then trying to help them get there. So, the dream was that one day everybody will become healthy, one day everybody will be educated, a day will come when there’s no more poverty, no more hunger, a day will come when everybody can live with dignity regardless of class, colour, creed, gender, economic status, or education status.
Our single biggest barrier when we started was malaria. There’s no word to describe the amount of malaria there was. We tested all our under-five children during the season; 59% of children were positive for malaria, with or without fever. It was just ubiquitous. There was no question; we had to evolve a strategy. What came out was what we called the People’s Movement Against Malaria. So, a lot of my energy in the early years was in empowering communities to control their own malaria, and for that, you had to teach mosquito psychology. We had to explain why it bites, and then work our way around it. The ideas we developed at that stage subsequently became part of the Government of Odisha’s flagship program called DAMaN, which radically controlled malaria later. This is part of what we did. We were able to get a radical drop in malaria, and WHO came running to find out. But dreams have a funny way of going beyond what you imagine, and in one village called Kachapaju, their dream was that one day there’ll be a collector from our tribe; engineers, doctors, nurses, teachers. And the leader of the village, Judhiti Saraka, told all the young people, “Shut up, you don’t know what you’re asking for. We have a school in our village; the teacher comes three days in a year — Independence Day, Republic Day, and Saraswati Puja. You study hard, you can become a peon. Don’t make irrational dreams.” And then he looked at me and said, “Where did you study? You don’t look like you studied in this kind of school. Give us a school like the one you studied in.” I said, “No,” but it happened anyway in 1998. 16 villages formed an association and together with the hospital, we started a school according to their culture, their language, and their thinking. It’s in Kuvi medium. Kuvi does not have a script so we use Odia as a script for grades one to five. At the school, except for the doctor and the collector, all the rest of the dreams have come true in the last 25 years. So, when we reached year 20, the community decided to celebrate. They called it the 20-year Festival, and at this Festival, we danced the dance of life, for the people we serve, under the canopy of the three mango trees that symbolise the divine. This to me is the game we’re playing. And then when your hair greys, they put you into administration. Inevitably, they assume that grey hair means you know something about admin. It isn’t true, but for the next few years, my job was to help design buildings, construct buildings, and help run the hospital. And now, at the age of 60, my primary task is to teach children how to whistle and to grow old with my friends.
Your definition of the zoo depends on which side of the bars you’re on, and therefore, if you really want to make a difference, you have to cross over and develop an insider perspective.
Last year, our only son Ashish got married. Last February. It was a homemade wedding. From the wedding cards to the cooking, everything was homemade. They were married in our hospital chapel, and then we had dinner with all our friends outside our house. But the next day, the community decided to celebrate, dancing together, beating the drums because they said, “This is our son.” The people sat the couple Ashish and Ishanee down under the mango tree, the same mango tree, and then 4,000 people had lunch. We provided the raw materials, and they did the cooking. Three days later, they got us to come back to the village, just to talk. They asked each of us to say something. And Ashu was also asked to say something. He said in Odia, “My friends came for my wedding. They came from Chennai, they came from Delhi, they came from Kolkata, they came from all over, and they all had one question: Why are these people doing this for your wedding?” And he said, “I had only one word to answer, ‘Nijjoro’’” In Odia, that means, “One’s Own.” I cried that day because that is what we live for. To become part of, and I’m so grateful to a community that accepted us and loved us. We have received much more than we have given.
I want to share three stories from my life, and some reflections from them.
The first one is from 15 years before I was born, 1947. My father was an interesting person, both my parents were very interesting people. We’re all slightly screw-loose, it’s nice to be that way. My father was studying theology in Serampore College in 1947. Partition was on, the Hindu-Muslim riots were on. My father says he’s seen blood flowing in the drains in Calcutta. Gandhiji wrote an article in his newspaper called The Harijan. The article was titled ‘Where are the Christians?’ What Gandhiji said was, “India needs you. When Hindus and Muslims are killing each other, we need you to come and stand up in between. You’re only two per cent, you’re not a threat to anybody. You talk of love, you talk of reconciliation. Where are you? Where are the Christians?” So, my father and three of his friends quit college. They went back to Kerala and collected another set of youth with them. 21 of them got together, said goodbye to their families because they said, “We are not going to come back alive, but we’re going because Gandhiji has called.” They went to Delhi Birla House and reported to Gandhiji. They said, “Gandhiji, you said ‘Where are the Christians?’ We’ve come. Tell us what you want us to do.” So, they were sent to Ambala where there were Muslim communities which had to shift to Pakistan. They had been looted, raped, pillaged, tortured, and they had to be put on trains to go to Pakistan. That was their job. Later, they were moved to Kurukshetra where there were Hindus coming from Pakistan. They were raped, looted, tortured, pillaged, and you had to counsel them, put them in tents, and find spaces.
This changed and deepened his understanding of Christ. He always talked about what Gandhi taught him about Christ, and that has affected the way we think as a family. He was a Gandhian and a Pastor, with no contradiction between the two. He was a pastor who was not scared to get mud on his hands, but also to combine spirituality. And so, my first reflection, which comes from what my parents taught us their five children, was this: our calling is to obedience, not necessarily to success.
1980, I grew up here in Tamil Nadu, so I spoke Tamil well but not Malayalam. I didn’t know any Malayalam, and so my parents sent all of us for at least two years to Kerala, so that we could speak the mother tongue. So, I did my pre-degree in St. Berchmans College in Changanassery. Just before the final exam, my friend Sushil and I (this is before the final exam, when your brain is working overtime) we’d sit in study time, hiding from the Father who checks the hostel, and we were discussing life. Who am I, what is life, where am I; you know, those kinds of questions which come before the final exam. So, Sushil was on a bus one day in Mavellikara when an old man got on the bus, cracked a lot of jokes, a lot of shayari. Everybody laughed at his jokes, but when he asked for money, nobody gave money. So, he cursed everybody in language that I cannot mention. And just before getting off the bus, he said, ‘When Indira Gandhi and I were born, we were both born naked.’ Then he told them what to do with their money, which again I cannot repeat here. So, Sushil came back with this line, and we sat and talked about it. If the Prime Minister, the beggar, and I were all born naked, all born the same way, why is one a Prime Minister, one a beggar, and one a plus two college student? Our whole analysis which went on for the rest of the study holidays finally concluded at this point. We do not belong to ourselves. All that we are, all that we have, are gifts from God to be used in the service of others, and this is the only reason I did medicine.
I wanted to do journalism or medicine. I applied to MCC and Vellore and finally studied Medicine.God is real, God is good, God is faithful. You can trust and walk.- Dr. John Oommen Click To Tweet
This is now 1997. I’m in Bissamcuttack now, we’re working in the field. I was training my village health workers on how to conduct a delivery. One of my tribal ladies was a pregnant health worker. She said, ‘Sir, when I deliver, will the placenta get stuck inside? Will I bleed? Will I die?’ I said, ‘No, no, you won’t.’ And then she said, ‘Sir, if I call you, will you come?’ I said, ‘I’ve come to save the world. Sure, just call, I’ll be there.’ As luck would have it, on a Tuesday morning at eight months of pregnancy, she delivered. I was in another village. I used to start out at 7:30 in the morning, come back at 8 o’clock at night. The placenta didn’t come out. She bled. She sent her husband to search for me. He came to the hospital, 23 kilometres away. He wouldn’t talk to anybody else. He waited for me to come back in the evening. Told me, “She’s calling you.” We charged to the village at 8 o’clock at night. She had already died around one or two o’clock. She was in rigor mortis. The baby was still with her. The cord was uncut. I asked them, ‘Why didn’t you cut the cord?’ They said, “Before she died, she said Johnny would come.” My heart broke. I cried my heart out. I realised that with my MBBS and MD, I could do nothing, not even save my health workers life in delivery. I almost gave up, but in the tears and in the searching, I found myself saying to God, “Lord, I can’t change the world. I can’t beat the system. Just give me the strength to share the pain like you did.”
I almost gave up, but in the tears and in the searching, I found myself saying to God, “Lord, I can’t change the world. I can’t beat the system. Just give me the strength to share the pain like you did.”
And so, our reflection three: our calling is to share the pain of people. We change, they change, the situations are transformed. And so, if I try to summarise these stories and the lessons that come down over the 60 years:
Lesson #1 that I want to share with you: God is real, God is good, God is faithful. Some of you out there must be wondering whether he’s a psychotherapy job. I have wondered that many, many times. A good psychotherapy job. But I’ve been there. I have stepped off the cliff. I have found His hands underneath. I assure you. God is real, God is good, God is faithful. You can trust and walk.
Lesson #2: We do not belong to ourselves. All that we are, and all that we have, are gifts from God to be used for those who did not get the opportunities we got. Don’t take it lightly.
Lesson #3: It isn’t easy, but it’s worthwhile. That’s the choice — me, I’d choose worthwhile anytime.
I also want to focus on the key values that LeadTalks is about: Purpose, Integrity, and Excellence. But may I suggest in my reflection that the art of life is striving for a dynamic equilibrium between seemingly opposite forces — the critical paradoxes of life. You know, if you take any position of the hand — any position you take is a balance between the flexors and the extensors. That’s how it is with life. So let me take purpose, or the word I prefer is ‘purposefulness’. Pitch your tent in the battlefield, stay the course, do not run away when the going gets tough. And yet ……. do not be so committed to the task that you cannot hear Him who has assigned you the task. There is a time to let go and move on in obedience when He calls you to.
On integrity, Stay True. Do not compromise yourself, for then there’s nothing left. We can fool the world, you can fool others, you can fool yourself, but you can’t fool God. And ultimately, we will have to answer to Him. And yet……, saints can be very difficult to live with. As we walk through life trying to balance our haloes on our heads, we can be a pain to our colleagues and to our families. Integrity has to be balanced with love, with graciousness, and with compassion.
Pitch your tent in the battlefield, stay the course, do not run away when the going gets tough.
And on excellence, strive for situational excellence wherever you are, whatever you’re doing. Ask yourself, “Is this the best we can do in the given situation?” Raise the bar, push the standards. And yet……., we must equally strive for social relevance. Will this actually make a difference to the poor, to the last man in the line, as Gandhi ji would say. Pursuit of excellence without relevance makes us ivory towers of irrelevance. Pursuit of relevance without excellence cultivates mediocrity, unbecoming of people of divine inspiration. It’s both-and not either-or.