Men like dahlias.

Without fail, he abandoned her the moment they entered the residence of the hosts of any drinks party they ever attended.

They had lived in the village for two years. Here everyone knew everyone. In the summer of 1976 Jane and Christian attended one such party. As soon as they got there, Christian was off, having a drink and a laugh with his friends. She could hear them raising a toast at the other corner of the large garden. Jane found herself standing near the hedge, admiring the flower beds and talking to her local GP, Dr Hamilton and the vicar. It was 7 pm and the garden was bursting with colours. “I do love these glorious dahlias” said Jane gazing down at the voluptuous crimson beauties. She looked up to find a shocked expression on the faces of both the men in her company. Had she said something awful? She worried.

The vicar looked at his feet, his left eyebrow still lifted in an arch. The doctor glanced sideways awkwardly, pretending he had heard nothing. ‘Only men like dahlias’ murmured the vicar. Jane turned red. There was so much she did not know. She quickly changed the topic to the nearby white roses, hoping they were safer. Uncontroversial.

The next day Jane had an appointment with Dr Hamilton. She said, “The Tamoxifen is terrible. I can’t fit into my shoes or get a full night’s sleep. Food makes me sick and I am impossible to be around. Don’t know how anyone puts up with me. My husband must be a saint.”

‘Yes. It can be quite de-feminizing” empathised Dr Hamilton.

“It was only a small tumour and they got all of it out. That was two and a half years ago.” Jane reminded him.

‘Okay. If the side effects are so bad for you, maybe we should stop it’ he thought aloud.

“That would be wonderful. And … it might make me stop liking dahlias.”

A Vision

By JR Leach

I had this vision back last spring,
When the land was ruled by corrupted kings,
And greed was fueled by hoarding things,
But things that one could touch.

The vision spoke of melted gold,
The value of the world resold,
“The price for life” is what we’re told,
By men who own too much.

As fear spread through a world; forlorn,
With threats of plague that ne’er were born,
Fresh chains were forged and willing-worn,
By those who feared the lie.

And though once joy had been assured,
Through weighing risk, and griefs endured,
Death could no longer be ignored,
For all souls fear to die.

This fear was stoked by those town criers,
Who peal the bells but start the fires,
And sing the songs their lord requires,
To whom they humbly thank.

Fresh tides of evil rise with haste,
As hands of Midas are replaced,
By hands whose touch turns all waste,
And paper sharp and blank.

“But rules are rules” the fearful sigh,
Content to see their forebears die,
No hand to hold, no last goodbye,
Just pixels, bright but cold.

“But rules are rules”, the state replies,
While deaf to all those muffled cries,
That sound from those with honest eyes,
And doubt the fear they’re sold.

And even children are not spared,
For misery is widely shared,
And dished by those who swore they cared,
But cared for guidelines more.

So mired and masked, the schools return,
Devoid of joy but forced to churn
Out abstract facts, for all must learn
That learning’s just a chore.

The vision ends when all is grey,
While shapeless, mouthless words relay,
The promise of a brighter day,
But no such day arrives.

A year drifts by, and so does youth,
The vision now a dismal truth,
But ‘truth’ is passé and uncouth,
While fiction blooms and thrives.

But even in this twilight hour,
imprisoned in our lonesome bower,
The words we speak retain their power,
And words can never die.

So speak your thoughts, and rise above
The barbs and briars of those who shove
The truth away, just think and love,
And you’ll escape the lie.

Things people say.

Dr Indu was broken inside out. She felt like a big black boulder and could barely hold her weight. After all these years of marching on alone and doing the ‘right’ things, this was her reward. Most of her friends had no clue what to say or do. After a few days it was clear that many of them could only stand by her for a week or 10 days max. This is when Indu remembered a passing acquaintance, Ruhi, a girl who wore long flouncy colourful skirts and big dangling ear-rings made of feathers and other dreamy things. She thought of her as a girl even though Ruhi had silvery grey hair and was seven years older than her.

Indu wanted to see Ruhi again. She didn’t know why but it had to be done. Indu posted her an invitation and as back-up, sent her a text with details.

The clear bright day was trying to cover-up the immensity of this death. Ruhi came in a flowing black dress with multiple strings of black wooden beads in various lengths cascading down, from her slender neck to her shapely waist. The ends of her long black sleeves opening-up like flowers to reveal her delicate hands. Not only did she have a pink lip-gloss on but also a serene smile. On this tearful day, she smiled on as if that was the most natural thing to do. No defiance or disrespect. A subtle involuntary smile, puzzling and misplaced.

She walked up to Indu and held both her hands in hers for a few frozen moments. She went on to open her arms and enclose Indu in them like a baby. “One day you’ll be grateful for this”, she whispered in her ear. By now Indu was used to hearing non-sense like “be brave”, “you’re so strong”, “such is life” and so on. She had learnt to ignore a lot. It took too much out of her to do anything more than that. “You have no idea what this is like” she thought to herself, feeling like a duplicate of herself amongst all these people. She drew back from Ruhi and looked into her dark brown eyes through her tearful ones. “Believe me. You will” Ruhi said softly.

Seven years have passed. Now Indu is as old as Ruhi was then.

And she remembers her horror at what Ruhi had whispered in her ear that day. The chains are falling off. Her vision is clearing. She notices more, within and without. She wants to live the truth. Be it. She knows it now. It’s all a ‘seeming’. All of this. It’s so clever. It fools us into believing it’s real. She has felt the presence of the divine in her broken heart. The blessings of a few fleeting golden moments of absolute grace have left her charmed with life and thirsty for more.

Indu and Ruhi meet up at the café that plays Bossa Nova jazz all day. They catch-up over large mugs of cappucino, sing and dance and take long walks together. They laugh and cry with abandon. Both wear pink lip-gloss and without knowing, they smile. Light as dust.

A missed opportunity.

Never have I had so much time and predictability. Days have been rolling at a soft rhythm. This whole drama started nearly a year ago. What have I done with the advantages I’ve had? What do I have to show for it?

Nothing.

People have started new businesses, done a whole lot of voluntary work, written books, got fit, learnt to knit and sew and cook and all that jazz. I am just the same as I was at the start. Still subconsciously judging me based on my productivity. Old habits, like patterns that repeat themselves on an unending roll of synthetic fabric in a psychedelic print. I must admit there is a strange kind of gratification in that. Self-flagellation is a modern virtue.

One lesson we can learn from a dog – it never tries to be a better dog. It is fully accepting of itself. It has no concept of ‘self-improvement’ or ‘achievement’. It’s free of the notions of ‘self’. You might want it to be a better dog but as far as that sweet creature is concerned, it is purely its unadulterated self.

The world was given an opportunity to unite and it managed to cut itself up into even smaller bits – the ones who wear masks everywhere and the ones who don’t, the ones who think that vaccine is God and the others who don’t, the ones who drive beyond 5 kilo-meters and the ones who won’t, the ones who use public transport and the ones who don’t, the ones that can’t wait for the lock-down to end and others who can’t bear the thought of it ending. One side trying desperately to convert the other. The rich got richer and the poor got poorer. People went as far as snitching on their neighbours – all in the name of a greater good. Not really for themselves but for other people.

The list of criminal offences has more than doubled in this time while basic human rights have been trampled upon or willingly surrendered. Who would’ve thought that leaving one’s house more than once a day could be classed as a ‘criminal act’?

I suppose I can congratulate myself for staying out of prison for one whole year.

Felicitations dear World. You have just given birth to a baby religion.

It changes. And changes again.

Over and over I asked myself – Now what? Now what? What happens after a severance such as this? How long do one’s bones bleed? Do the tears ever finish? What does ‘recovery’ look like? Is it even possible? How does one keep placing one foot in front of the other? Where is the road? Where does it come from? Where does it go? How long and meandering is it? When does the screaming in my head stop? How long can I keep up the facade? Pretend to be sane? Is this what a new diagnosis of a terminal illness feels like? Is forgiveness possible? Self-forgiveness? Acceptance? Surrender? All these big words! Surrender what? To whom? Who am I now? What do I do?

No answers. Silence. The tilted earth keeps spinning around its imaginary axis. It keeps cradling me. The sun stays at the center of its orbit. My son stays at the center of my being. My breath keeps coming and going. I grow new eyes. My bones carry my weight even though they bleed. The road appears under my feet. It reveals itself one step at a time. Rumi and Khalil Gibran come and hold my hand. The screaming softens. The wall of bricks that was my body, loosens. I come to know the terror and the joy of being insane, catch glimpses of being free. Respect for those who went before and sadly others, who follow. I stop fighting with the big words and keep it simple. Watch. Observe. See. Open. Let the gash in my heart, allow the light in.

A recent talk for The Compassionate Friends, a charity dedicated to supporting bereaved families.

Less than 3

Si was flummoxed by the ‘<3’ sign appearing repeatedly in the chat box on a zoom call with friends. Sometimes all by itself, without context, without a before or after. It took him a while to realise what it was. I suppose you know already. Don’t you?

“Love thy neighbour as thyself” implies that respect for one’s own uniqueness and integrity is inseparable from the understanding of anothers. Yet, it is widely believed that it is virtuous to love others. But to offer that same love to yourself is somewhat indulgent. In fact, this misconception goes as far as to say that the degree to which I love myself, I do not love others. Self-love is commonly understood to be synonymous with selfishness or narcissism. The French theologian, John Calvin speaks of self-love as ‘a pest’. Self-love bad, hence, unselfishness good.

Selfishness and self-love are opposites. When selfish, one is incapable of loving others and incapable of loving oneself.  

Only recently have I come to know this to be the truth – I am deserving of my love. In fact, I cannot fully love and respect another, until I love and respect myself a hundred percent. I don’t need to buy expensive gifts for me to experience it. Sitting quietly with myself is an act of love. It does not need evidence. It is free of all obligatory burdens. It is freedom itself.

On this day, I hope you can be your own Valentine. Happy Valentine’s day! Today and every day.  

 “If you love yourself, you love everybody else as you do yourself. As long as you love another person less than you love yourself, you will not really succeed in loving yourself, but if you love all alike, including yourself, you will love them as one person and that person is both God and man. Thus, he is a great and righteous person, who, loving himself, loves all others equally.”  

Being a Rose

Scent as soft as

feathers touching

the skin on the tip

of my nose.

Subtle. Almost invisible.

Gentle. Like a fine drizzle.

Smell? No.

Fragrance. The colour of orangey-peach petals.

A rose is nothing but non-rose.

It is the cloud that sent rain.

The sun. The soil. The seed.

The gardener’s sweat.

A conspiracy of the cosmos.

The rose

Cannot be herself alone.

It must inter-be.

With molecules of minerals and

Little particles of me.

All this, I touch

when my fingers hold

the tender stem.

I touch reality.

The non-self-ness of the rose.

Seeing real close-

A rose no longer rose.

A river no longer river.

A mountain no longer mountain.

We don’t know it yet.

(A government advertisement which has now been removed)

“We’d better finish in time today. I have tickets for Nitin Sawhney at the Southbank Centre this evening. Would be nice to grab a bite beforehand. Isn’t it Sod’s law that when you have plans, something is bound to crop up and stop you getting there?”

Once upon a time, we made plans. We co-ordinated and arranged a time and place to meet with friends. After work, we visited places, had conversations, chilled out at book shops browsing through poetry and fiction, we waved frantically as we spotted each other in crowds, across a sea of heads. We buzzed in the excitement of the bar and lounge in theatres before the show began. We pre-booked drinks for the interval. We patiently queued outside toilets. We unexpectedly ran into people we knew but didn’t expect to see. We leant into the ushers with our tickets, showing them the number and taking directions to our seats. We squeezed past people apologising as our handbags and knees gently bumped against each other. We quietly admired a dress or a pair of earrings here and the unmissable drama of a sparkling peacock-blue eye-shadow at the base of long brushy eye-lashes there. We hushed as the lights went down. We waited for the curtains to rise. We lost ourselves in the surreal sets, the crazy costumes, the transformative talent, the perfect precision, the heights of the high notes, the tangential takes. The sheer magic of it.

We came back, changed. Enriched. Enthralled. Expanded. Elevated.

That was a long time ago. They say ballet dancers are being encouraged to re-train in cyber-security, singers are venturing into soft furnishings and sound technicians now have the lucrative opportunity to be delivery drivers. Their jobs evaporated.

The pandemic and the response to it are killing people. What else is being killed? Can it be measured? How much of it is revivable? When?

Poverty and the Mind

Vikram Patel is a psychiatrist and a Professor of Global Health who works tirelessly to improve the mental health of people living in low and middle income countries like India and Ethiopia.

His recent research has found that all countries are ‘developing’ countries when you look at the low proportion of the health-budget they spend on mental health. Some wealthy countries may have better systems of care for maternal and child health but overall, mental health remains universally, at the end of the queue.

At present, COVID has overtaken all other agendas. However, now more than ever before, there is a recognition of the two-way relationship between poverty and mental ill-health. This may be a historic opportunity to get this right.

The relationship between poverty and mental ill-health is a complex one. How can we distinguish a normal response to poverty from a disease process? Poverty can increase the risk of poor mental health via multiple pathways, for example, poor physical health, high levels of noise pollution, violent neighbourhoods, insecurity and humiliation.

Can an increase in income improve mental health? Yes. It can but it needs to be sustained.

The fact that having a mental illness may induce poverty is less well recognised. It may affect one’s education and hence, employment opportunities. In low and medium income countries, health care is paid for by people. Due to the length of time it takes to find an effective treatment, much effort and money is wasted in doctor-shopping. Depression is inequitably distributed in society but not recognised as such because wealthy individuals also get it. We accept that long term expensive therapies cannot be delivered to the poor, so what’s the point in studying them?

After nearly a year of job-losses, the number of people below the bread-line all over the world will increase by tens of millions. In India alone, the gains made in economic growth over the last decade are predicted to be wiped out this year. The historically disadvantaged will fare worse, suffer more.

We can expect a surge in mental health problems like we did after the 2008 global financial crisis, mainly led by suicide and drug misuse. Sir Angus S Deaton, a Nobel prize winning economist wrote extensively about these deaths of despair. Economists and global health experts warn that this one will possibly be far worse.

In India, while the state is spending all its energies on the pandemic, livelihood-based organisations are finding very poor mental health in their members. Taking a broad, multidisciplinary approach to depression and anxiety rather than viewing it through the lens of a medical specialty is the need of the hour. Policies all over the world need to de-medicalise the emphasis on specialists and empower front-line providers and communities to enable them to foresee, identify and address this problem.

The bi-directional relationship between mental health and finances means that appropriate mental health interventions can improve finances. Can we persuade policy-makers world-wide to listen to global health experts and economists, look at this fast-approaching  avalanche and steer policies to protect those who are being and will be hit by it?

Talk: Poverty and Depression (https://voxdev.org/topic/health-education/poverty-and-depression-how-improving-mental-health-can-help-economic-wellbeing) – this talk was available till last night but has since disappeared.

Research Papers:

  1. Angus Deaton on the Financial crisis and the well-being of Americans (June 2011):

https://www.nber.org/papers/w17128

2. Vikram Patel on Causal evidence and mechanisms of Poverty, Depression and Anxiety (May 2020):

https://www.nber.org/papers/w27157

A blue sari

While planning a trip to Delhi I asked Caron what she would like me to bring for her from there. A blue sari, she said. Perfect. I added it to my shopping list. Caron was born into an Indian family in the UK and has visited India once in her childhood. She held an affinity and fascination for her parent’s country but she didn’t identify with it. She had never worn a sari before and I was excited to introduce her to one.

In Delhi, my mum and I treated our eyes to traditional styles like Banarasi, Kota and Duchene silk. We spent half a day scanning one shop after another before we found the perfect one – a printed silk with the prettiest flowers in blue with a touch of white and light yellow, the fabric light and feminine. It was elegantly draped on a mannequin which made the decision instant. I could imagine Caron wearing it, dazzling. Next, we got a blouse, petticoat and fall to match and the ensemble was complete.

With trepidation, I handed the well-wrapped gift to Caron on my return. She loved it. Thank God!

Two years later I asked her if she’d had a chance to wear the sari. “After eighteen months of keeping it in my wardrobe I gave it to the Red Cross charity shop. I knew you wouldn’t mind.” She said.

Did I mind? All that thought and time I had put into it. All that love. A part of me was shocked as I would never do that. I wouldn’t think of doing that. Even if I didn’t use it as a sari, I would convert it to curtains or a stole. But my closest friend credited me more generosity of spirit than I did myself. She was asking me to see my ability to let go of the story, the drama. She was making me see my small mind saying, “How could you?” and urging me to ignore it. In her complete unapologetic honesty, she was asking me to go against myself, be bigger than myself.

For a while, it rankled. But then, once I had handed the gift to her, it was hers. She could do what she wanted with it and she did. That was it. She was not disregarding or disrespecting anything. She was simply uncluttering her wardrobe. Why should that take away from the memory of the beautiful morning I spent in the vibrant and bustling streets of Delhi with my mum or in any way lessen the love I have for my dear friend, Caron?

It was a call to shift a gear from small mind to Big Mind. I am glad I took it.