The John Karma Story

The tough part about writing fiction is the constraint under which one finds oneself —everyone assumes that one has the freedom to play God, but the truth is that only God can get away with the outrageous stuff.

A Buddhist ex-marine recovering alcoholic producing one of the world’s rarest and most expensive wines when not doing his day job as a philanthropic stockbroker… as a hero this is going to be a tough sell in any genre. Then there are all those other rules: We know that unlikely people can sometimes rise to the occasion, but for only the right people with the right skills to be in the right place at the right time?.. that stretches credibility.

In the real world “coincidence” should be considered a law of nature, while in literature you use it at your peril. Literary allusions flatter our intellect, and plagiarism irritates our moral sensibilities, but both are plain eerie if they crop up in real life. A shocking disregard for all these literary rules is your guarantee that the following tale is true.

A story this timeless almost demands that I say “Mammon, Healing, Faith, Law, Art, Charity and Compassion were on a pilgrimage in the mountains” but as it happened only a few weeks ago I dare say that you’d prefer a more contemporary approach: Our oxymoronic hero was trekking in the Nepalese hill country with a Jewish pediatrician from Brooklyn, a Presbyterian minister and his attorney wife, an artist, a Sherpa guide and a couple of Tibetan women- just a group of middle aged friends taking a mildly strenuous exotic holiday.

The region around Everest is a land without roads so everything must be carried in baskets, about which one soon gets blasé, making it hard to say what was special about the particular basket we passed on the fourth day of the trek. Whatever the attraction it was sufficiently strong to pull our unlikely stockbroker some 20 feet off the trail to investigate. As soon as he reached it he realized that it was actually identical to every other Nepalese porter’s basket, but whether it was a trick of the light, or something more mysterious that brought him to this spot is immaterial- the scene was now set.


Next to the big basket was a smaller one half hidden in the grass. In it, covered in flies and lice, lay a neglected and abandoned baby, its atrophied legs doubled up so that its feet were beside its ears. The villagers knew about the baby, and laughing passed by the spot several times a day, the local officials must have been aware as well, but they too passed by on the other side. How could any of them have guessed that some American Tourists would tend the wounds and pay for care- after all it is not every day that a wealthy man from the richest country on Earth comes into contact with an Untouchable infant from one of the World’s poorest countries.


The group of American travelers pulled the naked baby from its festering rag-filled basket. Appearing to be 6 months old, with lifeless eyes and skin caked in many layers of deeply engrained filth, it, and at this point it was just an “it”, was impossibly weak through lack of any stimulation. Enquiries revealed that the child was actually 2 years old, the product of the rape of its deaf and dumb teenage mother.The mother’s disabilities, combined with her defilement and her helplessness made them both figures of ridicule to the village girls. This was exacerbated and further complicated by caste considerations- the identity of the attacker was unknown, and obviously no one from your caste would commit such an act, so he must have been the lowest of the low. If the father is Untouchable then so is the child, and in this case he was Un-nameable too.

The village girls laughed as the American pilgrims washed the nameless child with Dial soap, examined the nameless child, picked lice from the nameless child’s hair, sang “There is a Balm in Gilead” to the nameless child, prayed for the nameless child, massaged the nameless child with Pond’s Cold Cream, dressed the nameless child in their own shirts and scarves, gave the nameless child Dole orange juice to drink, and fed the nameless child Sun Maid raisins from their packs. But what else could anyone involved do?


In less than an hour there was a twinkle in his eye—sure his legs were undeveloped through lack of use, sure he was small for his age, but he was alive and he knew it and he appreciated it—his whole being shone with it. They left him sitting watching the world go by, feeding himself raisins, aware that he had a future.

Everyone who witnessed it was reduced to tears, and all of them- from many faiths and from none- saw Jesus, Buddha or Moses on his face. It is an old story, but it is still a fresh story.


It takes very little love to transform a life.

The story could stop there and it would be an uplifting, but ultimately irrelevant traveler’s tale, however this is a story about Hope. Next day the group of trekkers met a Good Politician, who was heading towards the Nameless Child’s village. Being an impossibly poor country doesn’t mean that anyone can just march in and run off with babies. No matter how neglected the child might be, like anywhere else there are official channels that you ignore at your peril.

The politician knew all the right people and promised to act, so one week later the Nameless Child was waiting for us at the airport in Lukla. His cousin, the village postman, gratefully, apologetically and embarrassedly delivered him with the mother’s blessing and all the necessary signed releases.


The Nameless Child arrived with smiles, laughter, playfulness and a huge appetite. Our Nepalese Sherpa guide was as smitten as the rest of us and was delighted to adopt him, so with a new family, a clean bill of health and a team of sponsors he was ready for a new life in Kathmandu.


It might have been two years late, but finally John Karma Sherpa had a name. John because his adoptive Nepalese father felt he needed a good solid American name. Karma (which is Nepali for ‘Star’) after the Eiseley story about making a difference that we had heard in the camp two days prior to finding him, and Sherpa because at long last he had a tribe … to which he belonged.


John Karma today, with Dick and Ann


©1999 James Forbes
Reprinted with permission of Mars Hill Review.