An anthropologist, Margaret Mead was asked by a student “What do you consider the first sign of civilization to be?” He expected her to mention things like clay pots, fish-hooks and grinding stones but she replied, “A femur that had been broken and then healed. In the animal kingdom, if you break your leg, you die. You can’t run from danger, get a drink from the river or hunt for food. You are meat for prowling beasts. No animal survives a broken leg for long enough for the bone to heal. A bone that has healed indicates that someone took the time to stay with the one who fell, bound up the wound, carried the person to safety and tended the person through to recovery. Helping someone else through difficulty is where civilization starts.”
She also said that we should never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed, citizens can change the world. Indeed, it is the only thing that ever has.
Over the last weeks and months, there have been thousands of job-losses, much sadness caused by separation and bereavement and much suffering due to limited social contacts and falling away of normal support systems. Perhaps explaining this tweet by London Ambulance Service.
May be this is the time for us all to step up and be there for those who are affected. Sharpen our radars and pick up the subtlest signs of despair around us. However small, there is something we can all do – start a conversation, smile, share a hot coffee, offer a few coins or share information on useful resources. There will always be a reason to not do it but you are a member of a small group of thoughtful, committed, citizens who are going to change the world. Slowly. Slowly.
Whenever he picks mint or basil or bay leaves, he says a polite ‘thank you’ to the plants with a subtle bending of his head and all. I watch him and smile. How pointless, I think. If that’s his way, fine by me. Happy to be entertained for free by Si, the country-boy.
All the extra time at home over the last few months has meant lots of herb-pots overflowing in the garden. The relative dryness has meant lots of watering of the plants. An urbanite at heart, every two days I go around with a watering-can and make a leisure activity out of it. Slowly, select the order in which I go, pick the spots where the water drops in and carefully consider, how much. As I tilt the can into the basil, a waft of basil-fragrance envelops me. Am I imagining this? On to the thyme, a cupful of water and the air suffused with thyme-odour. I had never noticed this before. I wasn’t convinced. I move to the lavender and pour more generously, and there it is again, filling the air. The same unmistakable gesture comes from the profuse apple-mint.
I am not imagining this. They are all saying ‘thank you’.
That’s what it’s all about. Isn’t it? Our most basic needs.
For some, who were comfortable, these basics are threatened in the current climate. For some they have constantly been under threat. For the lucky ones, all is well. For now.
The fact remains that food needs to be grown by someone. Seeds need to be sown and nurtured. Given the right amount of nutrients, sun and water. Given time to mature and then harvested. Like Midas, even if everything else was made of gold, we could not eat it. Even if we put hundreds of satellites in space, we need our basic needs met.
Over the past few months I have appreciated growing a few things from seed. Sunflowers, mint, coriander and sage. Not enough to keep me alive but enough to give me a smug feel of being someone who grows stuff. I have little trays laid out by the windowsill and they fill me with pride each day they reach out for the sun, a few millimeters more than yesterday. What must it be like to be a real farmer!
In India, more than 11 thousand farmers ended their lives in the year 2016. Too much rain. Too little rain. Aberrant weather. Poor quality seeds. Exploitative middle men. Illness in the family. Monsanto. Easy access to pesticides. False promises of relief measures, incentivising a farmer suicide. The government promises money but fails to deliver again and again. It then blocks articles and videos that try to make this information public.
Kheyti is an organisation that helps small farmers design and implement low-cost farming interventions. “Greenhouse-in-a-Box” is a low-cost greenhouse bundled with end-to-end services. This greenhouse fits in 2-5% of a small farmer’s land, protects crops from environmental risks and grows 7 times more food using 90% less water.
This prolonged lockdown is going to affect many individuals and small businesses. Many are starting to worry about their very basic needs. Uncertainty, insecurity and the feeling of being stuck is rising everyday. Helplines are receiving more calls. Food banks have had to expand beyond capacity. The indirect and unintended consequences of the pandemic might be worse than the direct and predicted ones. As incomes fall away, despair in our communities will rise further.
Each of us needs to think of one person we know whose income might be affected by this and call them. We need to think of one person recently bereaved and call them. Not text. Not e-mail. Phone call. Speak. Directly. Ask questions. Connect, have a chat, come up with ideas and creative answers. Signpost to resources. Reassure. Give hope. Together, figure it out.
This too will pass but before that it will test us. All of us.
It wasn’t just a physical transportation but also an emotional one. For four weeks I was not an anaesthetist or a wife. I was just a traveling (Churchill) Fellow, curious to learn everything about ways of supporting vulnerable people through crises, advocacy for struggling families and attempt survivors, intentional and effective peer support, safe care-transitions and timely compassionate support for families, friends and communities affected by suicide.
Two contrasting towns with distinct landscapes. Concord in New Hampshire was a small, friendly town resplendent with autumnal beauty, a quiet serenity and a lot of ‘heart’. New York, a big blustering metropolis with clanking trains, crazy-ass driving (yes, worse than London), much honking and many high-level policy-makers. Hence, more like the ‘head’ of the suicide prevention community.
Since Saagar’s passing, I have not been on my own for that length of time. Especially as his 5th anniversary fell right in the middle of it. It was not easy living fully immersed in the world of Suicide prevention (SP) almost every day for a month. Sometimes it was overwhelming and ‘too much’. It turned out that I was not alone. I was met with much warmth, kindness and understanding. Some old friends made time to catch up with me and some new friends emerged.
One sunny autumn day I had the pleasure of riding a 3-person- tandem bike with an amazing couple who have cycled thousands of miles in tandem all over the world for the past 27 years. On the 16th Ann (an excellent SP trainer) and I went for a nice long walk in the woods in Derry with Dr Indiana Jones, her Border Collie. This was followed by a much needed brunch at a classic American ‘Red Arrow’ Diner where I had the best ever Tuna melt sandwich.
Polly’s pan-cakes was our destination one afternoon as we set off towards the north – Elaine, Pauline and I. We spoilt ourselves with a rich variety of pancakes before taking a walk along the river and visiting ‘The Basin’.
On my return to the UK, I joined the 50th anniversary celebrations weekend retreat of an amazing charity that supports bereaved parents and their families. It’s called ‘The Compassionate Friends’. The film below captures many aspects of the experiences as bereaved parents/siblings. Changed forever.
I am happy to be back home and back at work. My life greatly enriched, I hope to share the learning and bring about changes for the better, working with various charities, the NHS and the Mayor’s office as effectively as I can. Right now I am assimilating it all, bit by bit by bit.
Nearly 5 years on, we gather again. This time it’s a 25th birthday party. Many in the room are in their mid-twenties. It’s their party. It’s everyone’s. There’s an open mike. Young voices. A few songs are special – Dolly Partons’ ‘Jolene’, Timberlake’s ‘Cry me a river’. By divine conspiracy, there is this song from the CD Saagar got me one Christmas – Corinne Bailey Rae’s ‘Girl put your record on’. I sing along nice and loud, word for word, like I used to, a long time back! It’s our music, biryani and laughter. A strong sense of belonging binds the room together. Sadness and joy are everywhere, stuck together like conjoint twins.
When I supposedly had ‘everything’, I didn’t know how to
access true joy. Now that I don’t have ‘everything’, I do. Even if it happens
for tiny snippets of time, it happens in its fullness. It’s like being immersed
in a singing warm ocean of bliss. The brickwork of resistance drops off. Everything
is in harmony with my cosmos. Everything that steps in the way melts away. I am
complete with everything just the way it is. This enticing path of joy meanders
through a dark forest of grief. I carry the forest with me. And its black
shadows. And all its wild animals that threaten to kill. We celebrate. We sing,
laugh and we dance. We hug and cry and eat and drink as one. We are held in the
warm embrace of a field of love that nourishes our souls.
He loved the company of older boys. The younger ones annoyed him. His favourite thing as a toddler was to stand in super-big shoes belonging to the older men in the family. He waded around the house in them. He happily posed for the camera with a toothy grin, looking up with his twinkling eyes.
He couldn’t wait to grow up. As a 5 year old, he would sit studiously at the dining table and squiggle pages of nonsense words on a writing pad, claiming seriously, ”I am doing office work.”
About a year later, one Sunday I was on call. We were driving to his child-minder’s house at 7 am. There was no traffic at all. All of Belfast was asleep. I said to him, “Look Saagar, it’s so unfair. Everyone is resting today and I have to go to work.” After a moment’s thought he said, “But Mamma, you’re a good girl.”
One summer evening, he had been playing outside with his friends for a couple of hours. We lived in the hospital accommodation which was a block of 6 flats surrounded by green grounds and tall trees, a safe distance away from the road. At dinner time, he said he wasn’t hungry as he had had snacks at one of the neighbours. I had prepared dinner and had been waiting to have it with him. I tried to coax him to eat just a little bit. But he didn’t want to. I persisted with my efforts, making up stuff like, he would get bad dreams if he didn’t have a proper meal before bed. After a while he sat me down and said, “Mamma, when you are not hungry, do I force you to eat?”
He sits on a bench in Borough market with one of his friends who gets up and goes to get a drink. My heart takes a giant leap. Si is with me. He calls out his name and he beams his trademark squinty smile of recognition at him. He stands up. They shake hands like old mates. My eyes fixate on his face like those of a mad woman. His eye-lashes are not as thick as before. Everything else is the same. I recognise his off-green t-shirt that he lived in. I can’t hold back. My fingertips explore his shoulders without his permission. He doesn’t seem to notice. He’s definitely real. I can touch him. He raises his left arm to rearrange his hair the way he does. He pinches the front of his t-shirt between his right thumb and index finger like he does. Either he can’t see me or he’s letting me do my thing. He’s talking to Si.
“The guys in grey suits wrote to us in first year at Uni. All the students on the Arabic course got the invitation.”
‘You didn’t say anything.’
‘No. They told us not to. They offered us jobs.’
‘Exciting. After the second year at Uni I thought I’d take it up.’
‘It was fun but then … 4 years was enough.’
“So, is this for good?”
‘Yup. For now.’
“Good to see you man.”
‘Yeah. And you. Great to be back. Argentinian Empanadas. I remember those.’
I am still invisible to him. We used to buy empanadas together. Beef ones for him and Spinach and ricotta for me. My finger tips are still confirming reality. He has been working out. I can tell. I want to check his tattoo but that would be too bold. I want to look for the scars on his left forearm but my eyes cling to his thick black brow, his slightly dry lips, his careless stubble. Their thirst cannot be quenched. My ears clasp his voice, his breath. Every word, a harmony. He is here. His words are real. He’s been hiding all this while, working with some kind of a Secret Service. He looks like a British Indian James Bond. But he still hasn’t noticed me and it’s ok.
The tension in my arms lessens as more and more confirmatory signals feed into my brain. My heart is doing somersaults like he did when he was 6. My eyes are so wide, they can take the whole world in.
It was like being on a film set at the Okotoks Pro Rodeo Competition in Calgary, Canada, yesterday.
Hamburgers and pierogis (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Pierogi) for lunch. Cowboy hats and boots. Broad leather belts with huge shiny metallic buckles, checked shirts and jeans all around. A swagger in their gait and a palpable pride in their country life, closely interwoven with that of their animals.
The youngest contestants were no more than 5 years old. Their event was sheep riding (mutton busting). Little boys and girls emerged from the shoot with their little helmets on, hanging on to the sheep coat with all they have, like little monkeys. Within seconds they tumbled off, on to the soft earth. Some dragged on, holding on to the running sheep for a few seconds longer. The rodeo-clown, with an orange shirt with white polka dots gave them all a high-five and got the audience to give each of them a big round of applause. One couldn’t help but admire their bravado.
The bareback riding was shocking to watch live and up close. The core muscles of the riders must be as strong as a slab of cement, their spines, rods of steel and their constitution unshakable. Other events of the day were saddle-bronc, calf tie-down roping, steer wrestling, bull riding, wild pony racing and barrel racing – things I didn’t know existed. The synchronicity between man and beast on full display. Being celebrated and honoured. A strong community with no pretensions or misapprehensions.
This morning I found a non-electric water-boiling kettle in the kitchen. I filled up just enough water for 2 cups of tea and placed it on the electric hob. It took its own sweet time to come to a boil. Such a refreshing change from the pace of life in London. I had time and space to appreciate the blue of the sky, the rustle of the wind, the song of the birds and the longing in my heart that flows through every cell of my body, every second of every day and yet I smile and enjoy this ‘here and now’.
“… if bread is to be a life companion, then we had better be choosy about it…”
– Elizabeth David
I remember the weeks and months of ‘tea and toast’.
Food that whispered to my heart,
“Every little thing’s gonna be alright”. And still does.
Food that nourishes the soul and sustains the spirit.
If breaking bread together is gold-like comfort and trust,
making bread together is nothing less than alchemy.
Under the wise and precise tutelage of Hilary Cacchio
Si and I spent some time this weekend feeling kneady.
We got our fingers dirty making sourdough starters.
We got introduced to ‘Bruce’, a four year old culture.
He was named after the priest who blessed him when he was little.
He smelt sickly-sweet, more like beer than champagne.
His texture was spongy, like honeycomb and
he was the perfect balance of yeast and bacteria.
The stringent accuracy of weighing ingredients was scary.
Rye, spelt, white, brown, caraway, coriander, molasses…
The importance of ‘resting’ was reiterated time and again.
It must be as important for dough as for humans.
The art of stretching organic white flour
into fine glutinous strands felt like a
Dance between one hand flattening the dough
and the other maneuvering a fine pink plastic scraper.
The wooden worktop was like solid silk.
Luckily, after 10 minutes of dancing, and some resting,
our dough passed the ‘stretch test’
(a delicate interplay of fingers)
Got tactfully transferred on to trays and
went into hiding in huge industrial ovens.
What went in – Salt, flour and water.
What came out –
Golden-brown, fragrant, light and airy dollops of heaven.
A touch of butter on fresh warm bread.
Yes. Every little thing’s gonna be alright.
At the Delhi International Airport, leaving home, I usually am sad to be leaving my folks. But on this occasion I felt like an uplifted version of myself. Positively happy. Buzzing. Most uncharacteristic. Something was not right, if you know what I mean. I thought back to what had gone on in the few preceding hours. Well, the only new thing was that just before leaving home, I had a glass of ice-coffee that my Mum had made for us. It was most welcome on a warm day like that. That was the first time I had coffee in more than 10 years.
Here was my answer. Saagar used to love Mocha Frappucino. I thought it was just the sugar hit he liked but now I know it is a combination of the coffee, the coolness and the calories. For some, the cream on top. I had just found a ‘back-up’ plan for my blues. It was a tried and tested remedy.
Since last weekend the temperatures have completely justified a generous dose of ice-coffee and we’ve indulged every day.
This is how we make 2 glasses :
Medium strength coffee: 200 mls
(While hot, dissolve 2 heaped teaspoons of dark muscavado sugar in it and allow to cool to room temperature)
Cold Milk: 1 glass
Ice cubes: 14-16
Blend the coffee and sugar mix in a blender.
Add the milk. Blend again
Add about 12 ice cubes. Reblend.
Pour into 2 tall glasses and add the other 1-2 ice cubes in each glass.
For extra luxury, add cream or vanilla/chocolate ice-cream to the mix.
If you drink properly, you can even get yourself a nice moustache. I am hooked. Can hardly wait till tomorrow.
(I am not going to be a numpty and post a picture of ice-coffee. I think everyone knows what it looks like.)