Before I recount my encounter with two ‘men’ in northern India I had better explain the reasons what I was doing in that exotic country.
The story really begins in the year of our Lord 1994. In that year my father – a bespoke tailor by trade – presented me with £1000. And told me enjoy spending it. I should make the point that for different reasons I have spent my life in a state of constant penury, avoiding destitution, but suffering from uninterrupted financial insufficiency.
At the age of thirteen I left school, barely able to read and write. This lack of a formal education has not got in the way of me penning a one hundred thousand philosophical manuscript on the complexities of life; while the manuscript has not been published, I have had it printed privately and is available from me. Back to the narrative; I began my working life as a bicycle message boy delivering groceries to middle-class homes. Later I worked in Scotland, I was then sixteen, and I naughtily forged my age to eighteen to qualify for a man’s wage.
A little later I was drawn to labouring on building sites in England. In 1956 I married my child-hood sweetheart Mary and we raised 11 wonderful children and fostered fifteen children during the worst of the violence that was rampant throughout Northern Ireland beginning in the late sixties.
During these troubled times I was involved in the struggle for civil rights and became a member of a radical socialist political party; these activities made it very difficult for me to find work and consequently I spent long periods on state benefits. My wife and I fostered fifteen children over the years, so the enlarged family consisted of twenty-six in total, fifteen daughters, and eleven sons.
These unusual domestic circumstances meant that my personal disposable financial resources was definitely finite, or in our local parlance, I was always “skint”. Money has never been important to me, when I have some money I never know how much; I know when I don’t which is a common enough phenomenon.
So the sudden thrusting by my father of £1000 came as a shock. So in a flash I have the financial ability to fulfil two life-long ambitions, which were to visit a third- world country and to experience a visit into a desert.
As a child I carried a pre-decimal penny to school every week for ‘black babies’ in Africa, which ignited an interest in the plight of destitute children in the third world. For the first time in my life I had the financial means to fulfil my ambition to go to Africa. I should mention that I split the £1000, gave my wife half and decided to visit Morocco because it has a desert and is the closest ’third world’ country to Ireland. A visit to Morocco could, so- to-speak, kill two birds with one stone. I should again point out that I have been a keen life-long amateur photographer, and I have two web sites on the Net.
My desire to visit a third- world country was to give me the opportunity to get exotic photos and I have a life-long political interest in the problems of the destitute in developing countries; I wanted to witness the effects of this dreadful scourge and how it affected those blighted by extreme poverty.
So I set off with my photographic gear and a keen sense of adventure. The only thing I knew about Morocco apart from its location was that it is a Muslim, Arabic Country and that Bing Crosby and Bob Hope made a Hollywood film in 1942 called “The Road to Morocco” I confess that I found Morocco fascinating; the scenery, the mountains, and cities have a very different atmosphere to any thing in Europe. Fez would be my favourite Moroccan City, followed by magical Marrakech.
It was in Marrakech that I had, what was to become a life changing experience, though at the time I certainly did not recognise the significance of the encounter with a young destitute Moroccan Boy. It was a particularly hot afternoon in Djemaa el-Fna, which is a large irregular square in which there is constant and spectacular daylong entertainment. I was enjoying a light lunch at an open-air café, when I became aware, out of the corner of my right eye that a ragged boy of about eight or nine was closely observing me. Initially I was intrigued by this boy’s interest in me; not being the brightest person in the world it took several minutes to work out that the boy had no interest in me as an individual, but was interested in what I was eating. I came to the conclusion that he was waiting to see if I would leave any food on the plate and he would grab it and make off.
When I became aware that the child was hungry I got up from the table approached the boy lifted him over the fence that surrounded the café area and carried him to my table and made him aware that I intended to provide him with a meal. The waiter who had observed what was happening approached us both and when I informed him that I wanted a meal for the child he became visibly agitated and refused saying “No food, no food, beggar, beggar”.
This reaction shocked and angered me. I slowly got to my feet looked the waiter in the eye and informed him that if the child did not get a meal I would not pay for mine.
He left and returned with the owner who was also reluctant to provide a meal. I was outraged and advised him to send for the police as I dad no intention of paying for my, by now consumed meal, made to leave and informed him that in protest I was refusing to pay: at this point three Germans, who had just sat down at an adjoining table, took umbrage at the attitude of the café owner and also threatened to leave. This act of international solidarity persuaded the café proprietor to relent and he instructed the waiter to serve the boy.
I tell you it was amazing to witness just how much food the child consumed.
When the meal was finished I took the boy to a clothes stall and bought him a tee shirt and a pair of shorts, which I made him wear, I then gave him ten Dirham which is about £2 in English currency. When I gave him the ten Dirham, he ran off clutching the money in his right hand and his old clothes in the other. I thought to myself you ungrateful boy; then I thought that he was, in all likelihood, apprehensive of my intentions. Upon reflection of this incident I decided to clothe and feed a destitute child every day during my stay in Morocco. I returned to Morocco two years later and again fed and clothed destitute children. would have liked to do more but my money was insufficient to match my intended generosity.
This is how my involvement with “third world” destitution children began; on my next trip I ventured to Mexico, simply because I spoke a limited amount of almost incomprehensive Spanish. But before I went to Mexico I suggested to my friends that they give me £5 and I would clothe and feed a destitute child for them. The reaction from my friends was generous and I was able to clothe and feed five children every day.
I have also worked with destitute street children in Egypt, Nepal and since the year 2000 I have visited India on seven occasions and have, (not alone) been responsible for the construction of 72 houses in three leper colonies; 12 schools for untouchable homeless, street children, who, in the circumstances pertaining to the caste system in India would never see the inside of a school; I should point out that our students receive school meals, clothing. And have comprehensive medical and dental care; a mixed gender orphanage for 24 children has opened in the city of Dehera Dun. Presently under construction in Hardiwar is a 24-bed hospice for lepers; men, woman, and children.
Thousands have been fed and hundreds clothed. Men and woman have been set up in self-employed projects, and what I call crawling–cripples, individuals totally unable to walk have been provided with hand-cranked tricycles. The cost of these machines is £30 a small amount to pay for giving ground-bound cripple mobility.
Now you know how I became involved with ‘third world’ street children I will recount two strange meeting I had in India. In the year 2000, I set sail for India. I left Delhi and travelled to the “holy city” of Hardwar. Any city built on the banks of the Ganges is deemed to be holy.
Hardwar is a small city and is popular centre for Hindu pilgrims who flock in their thousands to bathe in the holy Ganges. There is a large number of Shaddus ‘holy men’, or saints; some are completely naked and cover their body with ash from a sacred fire. They do nothing all day long other than give spiritual advice to anyone who is prepared to listen. On my first visit to India I spent two days in Hardwar and headed to another holy city called Rishikesh, which is only 20 kilometres north of Hardwar. On my first morning in Rishikesh I was enjoying a cup of chi, (Indian tea) at a street food stall when a holy- man pulled up on his new motorbike. I engaged this individual in conversation; he spoke faultless English with an American accent, which encouraged my curiosity.
I asked him if there was a genuine holy-man in the area. There was, high up in the mountains an old man whose age was 102; I enquired how far up in the mountains he lived and was informed 55 minutes by motorbike. I expressed disappointment that it was too far to walk, the biker volunteered to take me as a pillion passenger. I ask how much it would cost and was told the fifty rupees or sixty pence. So off we set into the Garwal Himalayan Mountains, no roads, most of the way, only goat tracks and very steep with deep chasms to our left. I have during my travels made some dangerous journeys over mountain passes and across deserts in all sorts of vehicles, but this journey was the worst ever, the idiot holy man was determined to frighten me by his reckless speed and dare-devil antics. I was sure we would end-up dead at the bottom of the mountain. I cursed my stupidity for setting out on this hair-brained scheme.
Having dismounted I gave thanks to God and wondered what the return journey would be like.
We made our way to the cave of the old holy man; the local inhabitants had built at the entrance to the cave, an ornamental wooden door, my guide suggested that I remain a short distance away he approached the cave knocked on the door and called to the old man that he had brought a visitor. When the door opened there stood a slim man who looked no older than seventy, but was one hundred and two years old. A short conversation took place, then the old man took a long searching look at me; in those few seconds I felt exposed for I felt this holy man could see into my heart and mind.
A further short conversation, which did not involve me, and the old man, entered his cave; this provoked a sense of despondency, thinking to myself I’ve made a hair -rising journey for this fleeting encounter. I ask my guide for an explanation of what was happening and was informed that the old man had gone to have a ceremonial bath and we were requested to return in one hour’s time. My guide took me on a tour of the village that had sprung- up around the holy-man’s cave dwelling, we met and talked to some of the villagers for my guide was a frequent visitor to the village bring many inquisitive individuals to meet the old holy- man.
On the completion of our tour we had lunch and headed off to renew our acquaintance with the holy hermit. For the second time I was to remain a short distance from the cave entrance when the old man responded to the knocking at the door I was bursting with curiosity wondering what his attitude to me would be. Both men came towards me and to my surprise and consternation the holy man walk past me without a glance, my frustration was increasing by the second and I was annoyed with myself for having undertaking this mission.
When my guide joined me I requested an explanation as to what was happening and was informed that the holy man would return in a minute or two. My mind was in turmoil I did not understand what was happening, the experience was to me confusing.
At this juncture I decided to sit on a low wall, I thought that this might be considered disrespectful, but my annoyance was such that protocol didn’t seem to be important.
Several minutes past when the holy man appeared in front of me, his hands were behind his back and before I could get to my feet and to my utter astonishment he placed a garland of flowers over my head and unto my shoulders; I was stunned and surprised at this and then he held his left hand over my head and released flower petals that cascaded over me. Then to my amazement he knelt on both knees on the ground and kissed my two feet; at this I immediately thought of Jesus and the washing of the disciples’ feet. In fact I tried to stop the latter action, but my guide frantically indicated by the use of his hands not to interrupt the action of the holy man. In India the greatest show of affection is to touch the feet of a relative or friend; for a holy man to kiss the feet of a stranger is benediction.
Having kissed my feet the holy man and my guide engaged in a short conversation and the holy man was about to leave when I requested to be photographed with him, he agreed and the photo you can view for yourself. When the old man departed I suggested to my guide that we go somewhere have a coffee for I wanted an explanation of the significance of what had just happened. During our coffee break I ask my guide to explain the reasons for the garland of flowers and the kissing of feet.
The explanation that I received from my guide, who had over a four year period brought several hundred visitors to the old man, that I was the only one to receive such a welcome. The fact that the old man deciding to have a “cleansing” ceremonial bath, the garland of flowers, and the kissing of my two feet, was the greatest honour he had paid to any visitor. When I inquired what the holy man said about me and I promise you that what I’m about to recount is absolute true.
The holy man had honoured me with a cleansing ceremonial bath, flowers and kisses because he said, I had been sent to India by God. While the thought that God was personally directing my humanitarian activities was intriguing I dismissed the notion out of hand. I had only days before my meeting with the holy man tried to escape from the dreadful poverty that was ever- present.
The next morning I left Rishikesh and tried to forget the previous day’s experience, but the events later on in the day would prove even stranger. Having left Rishikesh I returned to Hardwar, which is only twenty kilometres distance away and spent the day with street children providing clothes and food on an ad-hoc basis. Hardiwar is, by Indian standards, a small city built on one bank of the river Ganges; as the River rushes to the sea Hardiiwar has been built on the right-hand bank, on the other side of the river is where the improvised homeless live in tents made from black plastic.
It was here that I spent the day working with “untouchable” children; at dusk which would be about 6-30 PM, I decided to call it a day and was resolved to return very early the following day to get early morning photographs as the light can be beautiful at that time of day. I made my way to the dos-house where I stayed, which was on the other side of the river; I had a shower and lay down on the bed to rest before having an evening meal, thinking to my self what the hell am I doing in this poverty stricken country.
And for reasons that I still don’t understand the thought that I should cross over again to the other side of the river entered, uninvited, into my mind. I rejected the notion, but the thought became ever stronger. That fact that I could entertain such a preposterous notion caused me to be annoyed at myself, as the thought grew in intensity I decided to try and rationalise what was going through my mind. If I surrendered to the notion of returning to the other side of the river I thought; what could I do? It’s dark and possibly risky and therefore stupid. I have long held the view that in all situations I should use my intelligence intelligently and to surrender to this ridiculous notion would be denial of my cherished principle. Not only did the irritating notion remain, but grew in intensity, and became a compulsion that had to be obeyed; in considerable annoyance I relented, and headed across a footbridge to the other side of the river.
The journey over the bridge was spent in mental turmoil; the stupidity of what I was doing was breath- taking, why had I surrendered to an irrational compulsion and why was it that an irrational notion became so powerful that I could not resist it? I thought to myself this journey is very foolish and possibly dangerous and these thoughts had the effect of making me apprehensive and nervous.
Just before I reached the end of the bridge I had a decision to make, should I turn right or left? I was very nervous as I had only been in India a few days and was uncertain about the risk of wandering along a dimly lit and deserted path in the dark of night. As I slowly walk towards the road bridge, which was about a half a mile away, I constantly looked behind me to reassure myself that I was not being followed; there wasn’t any one on the path in front of me. To my right was the river and to the left was open ground with several hundred black polythene tents in which “untouchable” families lived without water, toilets or lighting of any sort. I kept thinking to myself this is really foolish and potentially dangerous; having walked along the path for several hundred metres I noticed to my left that a young girl of about twelve or thirteen was approaching me and she was carrying in her arms a baby of about one year old.
I was delighted to see them and approached them with outstretched arms indicating that I wanted to hold the baby; the older child surrendered the baby to me and I thought to myself I will come looking for you two tomorrow take you both across the river, buy new clothes and take them to a restaurant and get them a nice meal and buy a food parcel for the family.
Then I thought, maybe I won’t find them tomorrow so I reached into my left hand pocket and gave the older girl the contents which would be about two pounds sterling, as I did so a voice from behind said “May I speak with you” I almost jumped out of my skin with shock for I heard no approaching sound and was, in spite of my constant vigilance, totally unaware of the presence of this individual.
Upon hearing of the individual’s request I swung around so fast that I almost lost balance, and was relieved to see that there was only this one person in front of me, he was a small Indian man, about five foot six inches tall, aged about fifty six, bald on top and the hair on the sides of his head was well groomed, he was impeccably dressed in a medium brown pin-stripped suit with a matching plain brown shirt and dark brown tie.
I asked “What would you like to say?” His response was, “I have observed you for the past few days and I want you to know that you have a very beautiful soul” I was, of course, totally unprepared for this compliment. I responded by saying “Thank you very much, no one has ever said anything as beautiful as that to me before” I was still holding the baby and turned around to give the baby back to the girl who I assumed to be a sibling sister, I gave the baby a kiss and handed it over and immediately turned around to continue conversing with my complementary acquaintance only to discover that he had disappeared as mysteriously as he had arrived.
I could not rationalise or even comprehend what was happening to me. I was sure that I had a visitation of some sort and I had seen an apparition, which was not ghostly. Why did this apparition appear to me and for what reason; yes I was told that I had a very beautiful soul, but I believe all souls being from God are beautiful. I can explain what happened, but I’m unable to understand why it happened. I am however, convinced that my meeting with the old holy man high up in the Garhwal Himalayas mountains the day before and the apparition in Hardwar were some how connected.
I left India determined never to return, but three days later while I was uploading to my computer the photos of the destitute street children, the tears flooded from my eyes at that moment my wife Mary entered my office with a cup of coffee and wanted to know why I was so upset. I replied I’ve bad news for both of us I’m going back to India. I have had to reappraise my attitude to the old holy man who said that God had sent me to India.
What you may want to know has been achieved by my visits?
Seventy two houses have been built for leper families; Five Leper Colonies have been provided with toilets and showers; 12 schools have been built for destitute “untouchable” children who in the circumstances pertaining to India would never see the inside of a class room; A mixed gender orphanage has been provided for street children in Dehra Dun in the north of India; A twenty four bed hospice will shortly open for lepers, men, woman, and children; Individual transport in the form of hand- cranked tricycles is provided for ground bound cripples; Old destitute ladies are provided with sewing machines and training to make them financially self-sufficient; Suitable individuals are provided with the means of creating self-employment; Many other initiatives are taking place in the field of medical care and eco- awareness.