August 2017, Kathmandu.
“Those who dwell in the shelter of the Most High will find rest in the shadow of the Almighty” Ps. 91.1
Gyaani had been attending our church for some years when our pastor’s wife asked me to give her some dietary advice for diabetes. Kathmandu’s urban population has seen a huge increase in overweight and obesity as people adopt ‘modern’ sedentary lifestyles and become increasingly habituated to cheap, processed foods in their diet. Gyaani had the appearance and demeanour of many of the middle-class, middle-aged Newari women in the congregation: reasonably well-dressed, somewhat overweight, and confident enough to speak her mind in women’s fellowship meetings. However a series of high blood sugar results had thrown her into a panic and resulted in several late-night phone calls to the pastor’s wife for help and reassurance. As I explained the concepts of the diet to Gyaani, she grabbed the information and ran with it…almost literally! She adopted an early morning walk of 90 minutes each day, and cut back drastically on the amount of oil she was using for cooking. Within a couple of months, she was delightedly reporting to me her significant weight loss and the return of her blood sugar to normal levels. Since then she regularly asks me for copies of the diabetic diet sheet so that she can share the information with friends and relatives who are struggling with diabetes.
Gyaani was nine years old when her alcoholic father died of cancer. Their landlord immediately evicted her mother and the children because of the bad ‘karma’ associated with a widow. Gyaani’s mother found a new room for the family, but began leaving the children for extended periods. Gyaani assumed that her mother was working long hours as a domestic servant, but in fact she had fallen in love with a widower with an infant son and within months she abandoned her own children altogether. At 10 years of age, Gyaani became fully responsible for her 8 year old brother and 3 year old sister. She worked by day as a labourer on a building site and in a carpet factory till midnight in order to pay the rent and buy small amounts of old rice and lentils for their food. Gyaani frequently visited local Hindu temples to pray that her mother would return to them. At one desperate point, she took her brother and sister to seek help from their mother, but they were simply beaten by the new husband and sent away.
Gyaani was 15 years old when a friend of her landlord, a rich man who owned a factory, began to show an interest in this resilient young woman. Visiting his family’s large house and seeing their fields of fertile farm land, Gyaani was drawn to the possibility of a better life for her and her siblings. She met his parents who appeared to welcome her and assured her that he was not already married. However, before Gyaani could make a decision herself, she was kidnapped by the family during a Hindu festival and found herself without any choice but to accept her position as the man’s wife. Gyaani’s older married sister arranged a place for her younger siblings, and Gyaani consoled herself that she at least she could help with their support. It was 18 months later when Gyaani’s husband’s child bride, living until that point with her own family, suddenly appeared at the house to claim her position as his ‘real’ wife. Overnight, Gyaani’s position changed to that of a servant and she began to endure severe mistreatment at the hands of her mother-in-law and the other ‘wife’. At 16 years of age Gyaani attempted suicide, swallowing down a mix of kerosene and agricultural insecticide. She was found in a coma, and spent 4 days in hospital before regaining consciousness. After her recovery, the family kept Gyaani outside the house in a shed, even when she discovered she was pregnant. Gyaani’s first daughter died at 6 weeks of age from pneumonia.
Gyaani finally made the decision to leave her husband’s family and sought refuge in her uncle’s house. She was very depressed, but her husband asked to visit her, first moving her into a rented room of her own and later allowing her to live in his family’s second house in the city. His regular visits were often accompanied by beatings and abuse at the instruction of his mother, but the years passed and Gyaani raised 3 daughters in that house.
Gyaani’s life changed again when her husband got the chance to emigrate to America. Gyaani was heartbroken by the need to sign over her two teenage daughters to her husband’s other ‘wife’ in order for them to go with him. Gyaani’s eldest daughter remained with her, and her well-paying job paid the bills when Gyaani became ill and needed gynaecological surgery for some growths. On the morning of her operation, Gyaani’s daughter visited a local temple to offer Hindu worship for Gyaani’s well-being. At the same time, an elderly woman in the bed beside her told Gyaani that she was Christian and offered to pray for her. Gyaani refused, saying she didn’t follow the one called Jesus, but the woman set her hand on Gyaani’s bed and prayed anyway. As Gyaani was taken into pre-op, she herself called out to God, not knowing what name to call Him by, asking for help. After a final pre-op assessment, the surgeon told her that the growths had shrunk significantly and the operation was cancelled.
Although her daughter ascribed this healing to her Hindu prayers, Gyaani felt sure it related to Jesus and began to look for a church to visit. Her mother-in-law and daughter were appalled at the possibility, and both threatened Gyaani with eviction from the house if she pursued the matter. It was a year later when two Christians moved in to the ground floor as renters. Gyaani began to attend a small fellowship held in their room on Monday evenings…until her mother-in-law found out and evicted them. Amazingly, the next set of renters were also Christians, and so it was that one day Gyaani made her way to church with them. When Gyaani’s daughter found out, she flew into a rage, threw the renters out, and had a doctor prescribe sedatives for Gyaani. Despite her mother-in-law and daughter’s best efforts, Gyaani began to regularly attend the large church the ex-renters attended, although she struggled to understand the Christian faith in that crowded setting.
It was when she became ill again, and was visited by some Christian ladies for prayer, that Gyaani heard about a smaller church located close to her home. And so it was that Gyaani came to our church 6 years ago, and received more personal teaching and discipleship about God’s love and mercy as shown in Christ. Gyaani had found the One who would never leave her nor forsake her. Reading the gospel of John, she decided she needed to be baptised. Her daughter was so upset that she beat Gyaani badly and then, on the morning of the baptism itself, threw her and all her personal belongings out of the house. Gyaani was distraught and crept back later into an empty room in the house but, as she lay down on the floor sobbing, she experienced a vision of God in His glory. A few weeks later, she joined the next baptismal group and, still with some trepidation, was baptised. That same afternoon, Gyaani’s eldest daughter got news that she too had won a visa to emigrate to America.
Gyaani now lives alone, although she is in close contact with her daughters and has applied to visit them in California. She told me this story of her life as we were walking arm-in-arm through the dark city streets, Christmas carolling with our congregation. She was excited to have invited a group of her relatives to hear us sing outside her house, and anxious as to how they would respond.
Later that month, Gyaani’s mother’s husband fractured his leg and was admitted to hospital. Gyaani stayed at the hospital supporting the couple until the elderly man died of complications. She continued her efforts to support her mother in her time of grief, but wept openly in women’s fellowship as she spoke of the continued deep hurt and sense of betrayal in their relationship. Some weeks later, Gyaani wept again when she told how her mother had signed a financial document which, for the first time, referred to Gyaani as her daughter. Gyaani’s mother is now frail and struggles with illness herself. She too has begun to attend our church whenever the rest of the family allow her. During a recent hospital admission, Gyaani again stayed on the ward with her, taking the opportunity to speak to the patients and family carers about Jesus and pray with them. 7 people committed themselves to following Christ.
Gyaani came close to tears at several points as she related her story. As she drew to a close, she looked me steadily in the eye, and summed up her situation. “I live alone. But I know that God has been with me since the time I was in my mother’s womb. Even if everyone leaves me, God will always be with me. I have suffered, but Christ also suffered for us.”
Deirdre, Mark, Zachary & Benjamin.