Just beneath the skin

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Dissecting a human body is an enlightening experience. At 17, in the first year of medical school, it was a shock to enter the massive Anatomy hall with 12 metallic rectangular tables, each occupied by a horizontal naked human body covered with a white cotton sheet. 4 students in alphabetical order, to a table/ body. All different but more or less the same, students and bodies. Mine was a dark skinned, muscular young man in his thirties. I wondered how he had landed up on this table in the heart of Punjab when he clearly belonged somewhere else. I wondered what his story was.

The air was suffused with a stench of formaline. It flew through the roof of my nose straight into the recesses of my gray matter to form unerasable maps. It stung the eyes so hard, they wept. I never thought it was possible to get used to that repugnant odour but by the end of the first week, it was a ‘normal’ part of me.

‘Upper limb and breast’ was the first Lesson. Anterior, posterior, medial, dorsal, ventral lateral, proximal, distal were some of the new words added to my word bank. When I took the scalpel to my man’s skin, I flinched. It was an invasion. A sacrifice. An offering. A permission. I wanted to apologise to him and thank him. As I carefully peeled the first layer off, a pale yellow silky layer unravelled itself. I peeked at the next table and it was the same. And the next and the next. Men and women, old and young, squat and fit, brown and black. Whatever on the outside, were the same just underneath. The other thing they had in common was that they were all dead.

It’s the same with us. Whatever we are on the outside, we’re the same just underneath. We cry the same salty tears, we feel the same love for our kids, we yawn and sneeze and hiccup and breath the same way. We all are distinct and yet, more or less the same. Our innermost desire is only to be loved and understood. And one day we will all be dead.

At present, with the identity politics at its peak, my kind, gentle and fairness-loving husband is made to belong to only one box, that of a straight middle-aged white man. Yet, he is so much more than that. Just as black people are so much more than just black and homosexuals are so much more than just that. And Saagar was so much more than just a brown young man.

Underneath all that they all are just human. We have the privilege of living on the most gorgeous planet. Our numbers are higher than ever before and our potential as a race is the highest it has ever been. Yet, we cannot find one suitable host for the Oscars Award ceremony. Because we have paralysed ourselves. We cannot allow people the smallest past or future mistakes and mis-judgements. The amount of energy spent on getting offended or apologising for mistakenly causing offence is frightfully high.

At a time when we need more cohesion between humans than ever before, we are building divisions all over the world – us and them. Be it ‘the wall’ in America or Brexit or Islamophobia. We need bridges, not walls. We need to see ourselves in others – vulnerable and tough at the same time.

Can we make an effort to find the sameness between us? I may be a hippie and you a hipster but we are not that different. Let’s talk.

Gold flecks

Every day since Saagar’s death, I looked for him in my face when I looked in the mirror. I searched hard. I desperately wanted to see him. Just a hint of him. But, no. Nothing showed up. Absolutely nothing.

Last night, I hunted again and I am definite I found a hue of him in the black and golden flecks on the irises of my eyes. Just a shimmer, only visible when light fell at a particular angle. Fleeting but present. The golden flecks weren’t as bright as his. They were somewhat faded but they were certainly there. And they were his.

I smiled. Yes. He was right here.  In my eyes.

Every week day morning and every week day evening, I walk to and from the same railway station where it happened. As I walk to the station, I walk his last walk. As I walk home, I walk the path he didn’t. I send him my love and blessings at every step. He is in my mornings and evenings and in everything in between.

A new Blackbird Bakery kiosk has recently opened on Platform 1 at West Norwood station. The staff are friendly and coffee fabulous. I wish it had been there then. It makes it a happier place. I am glad it’s there now.

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Help? Me?

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“Call for help” is the first step in Basic Life Support. At the hospital, I encourage Junior doctors to recognise early when a patient is too complex or too sick and ask for help at an early, rather than late stage.

It took six sessions of counselling to wake me up with a jolt to the fact that I needed to ask for help. Yes. I was a strong and independent woman. Yes. Very self-sufficient. Omnipotent, in my view. I offered help generously but hesitated to ask. Saagar was ill. I was looking after him the best I could while working full time. All our family was in India.  Saagar’s dad stepped in as much as he could. He worked full time too. We had no back-up. No support net-work. No community. We were muddling along till it dawned on me after 6 weekly Talking Therapy sessions of one hour each, that I could and should ask my family for help even though they were thousands of miles away.

I didn’t know it then, but it would seem I didn’t like asking for help. It made me feel weak, vulnerable and inadequate. Exposed. I don’t know why but it seemed like an admission of failure to manage my affairs. But now, Saagar was ill and we needed help.

On the night of the last session of therapy, I wrote an e-mail to all the adults on my side of the family, explaining our situation and finally, asking them for help.

One of my brothers responded. He applied for his UK Visa at once. A few days later he was told there weren’t enough blank pages in his Passport for the Visa to be stamped. He took the document back to the Passport office to get more blank pages added on. That took a few days. He then re-applied for his UK visa and finally got it a further few days later. By now 2 more weeks had passed.

In the mean time I arranged with one of my young friends, Jan to come to stay with us. Jan and his mum attended meditation lessons with me. Jan was a compassionate and enthusiastic young man who had recently lost his job and was looking for something meaningful to do. I offered him our guest room and invited him to stay with us, explaining the situation. He was excited about it. I asked Saagar how he felt about this temporary arrangement.

“It’s okay Mamma. I’ll wait for Uncle to come.”

I listened. I understood. I was tempted to push it. But I wanted to respect Saagar’s wishes. I didn’t want to take away the little control over his life that he had left.

A few days later, the visa arrived. Just in time for Saagar’s uncle to attend his funeral.

Moral of the story: Ask for help openly and EARLY.
Reminder: It takes a village …

Song: Lean on me:

https: //www.youtube.com/watch?v=qTVEIOOBD6Q

My name is Saagar.

S A A G A R.

In Delhi, it was simple and sweet. In Belfast, it had to be spoken out slowly and spelt out clearly. Still, it was utterred in all kinds of ways- Segaar, Sags, Sagsy-Wagsy, Saga, Cigar etc. It is, after all, a proper noun. I would think forgivingly, “As long as you speak his name with love, you can say it any which way you like.”

At about 7 years of age, Saagar came home from school one day and casually, asked “Can’t I be called Aran or something?” I felt for him but laughed. What else could I do? I asked him if anyone had commented on his name at school that day. “I have to tell them at least twice and then spell it out and they still get it wrong.”

I told him the story of his name. I was 24 when I got married. My in-laws lived In Chennai. We visited them a few months later and one evening we all went to a place called Besant Nagar beach. That was the first time I saw the ocean. The vision of a dark blue shimmer below meeting a pale blue glow above in a clean, delicate, straight line made everything else disappear. Its calm, its rhythm, its enormity, its subtle dance, its grace and openness pulled me in. All people and conversation faded away and there I was, completely soaked in the bliss of the ocean. My soul soothed. My body relaxed. My eyes quenched. I was in love. In that moment, I knew that if I ever had a son, he would be called, ‘Ocean’ ie. Saagar.  I told him he was named Saagar because his heart was as large and as beautiful as the ocean. He smiled and hugged me tight.

Saagar and I needed more stories. They could give us a sense of connection with the characters and each other. Feel their excitement and face their challenges.  Make us less alone. Create pictures we could step into as characters. They could show us a map of how to get from here to there. Of how to live in this world. They could make us more human, creating boundaries and arenas within which we could shine. They could make things seem less endless and random. They could take us places we didn’t know we wanted to go. We needed more shared stories.

 

No more; no less.

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It occurred to Pooh 🐻 and Piglet 🐷 that they hadn’t heard from Eeyore for several days, so they put on their hats 🎩 and coats 🧥 and trotted across the Hundred Acre Wood🌲 to Eeyore’s stick house. Inside the house was Eeyore.

“Hello Eeyore,” said Pooh.

“Hello Pooh. 🐻 Hello Piglet 🐷” said Eeyore, in a Glum Sounding Voice

“We just thought we’d check in on you,” said Piglet, “because we hadn’t heard from you, and so we wanted to know if you were okay.”

Eeyore was silent for a moment. “Am I okay?” he asked, eventually. “Well, I don’t know, to be honest. Are any of us really okay? That’s what I ask myself. All I can tell you, Pooh and Piglet, is that right now I feel really rather Sad, and Alone, and Not Much Fun To Be Around At All.

Which is why I haven’t bothered you. Because you wouldn’t want to waste your time hanging out with someone who is Sad, and Alone, and Not Much Fun To Be Around At All, would you now.”

Pooh looked and Piglet, and Piglet looked at Pooh, and they both sat down, one on either side of Eeyore in his stick house.

Eeyore looked at them in surprise. “What are you doing?”

“We’re sitting here with you,” said Pooh, “because we are your friends. And true friends don’t care if someone is feeling Sad, or Alone, or Not Much Fun To Be Around At All. True friends are there for you anyway. And so here we are.” 💜💚

“Oh,” said Eeyore. “Oh.” And the three of them sat there in silence, and while Pooh and Piglet said nothing at all; somehow, almost imperceptibly, Eeyore started to feel a very tiny little bit better. 🥰

Because Pooh and Piglet were There.
No more; no less.

A.A.Milne
E.H.Shepard

Andy’s dilemma. Errm … decision.

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On Friday, the first thing I heard on radio was Andy in tears. It was also the last thing on TV before going to bed. A proud Scotsman, 31 years of age, Andy announces his retirement after a scintillating career in tennis and a long fight with an injury to his right hip. Tall and athletic, in a deep blue t-shirt, seated in front of a dark grey screen covered in contrasting logos, he faced the press. Eyes lowered. Head bent. His left hand trying to cover his face in the guise of adjusting the brim of his baseball cap.
“Ermm. Not great.” (Nods, looks sideways, down and to his right. Nods twice to himself. Big sigh.)
“Ermm…”(Comes close to breaking down and leaves his seat. Walks off with head steeply bent forward.)
Comes back. Sits down. Starts again.
“Sorry.” (Small cough)
“Ermm. Yeah. So, not … not feeling good.
Obviously been struggling, been struggling for a long time.
I can still play to a level. Not a level I’m happy playing at. But also, it’s not just that the pain is … too much really. I don’t want to keep playing that way. You know, I spoke to my team and I told them that, you know, I can’t … I can’t keep doing this and I needed to have an endpoint. I told my team that I needed to get through this till Wimbledon. That’s where … where I’d like to stop.
Ermm … stop playing. (Visibly steels himself as he says this).
Ermm … but also not certain I’m able to do that. (Shakes his head and bends it further forward)
Ya. Ya. I think there’s a chance of that for sure. (Rubs his right eye. Purses his lips.)
Ermm. Ya. There’s … sure, because like I said I am not sure … not sure I’m able to … to play through the pain you know. For another 4-5 months. Ermm. I have an option to, you know, have another operation which you know is … you know a little bit more … more kind of severe than what I’ve had before and having my hip resurfaced will allow me to have a better quality of life and be out of pain and that’s something I’m seriously considering right now. There’s obviously no guarantees. The reason for having an operation like that is not to return to professional sport. It’s just for a better quality of life. Yeah. For myself mainly. (Pulls the brim of his hat forward). There’s lots of little things. I mean, you guys see me running around the tennis court and walking around in between points and it obviously doesn’t look good and doesn’t look comfortable but you know there’s little things like day to day, that are also a struggle, and ya, it’d be nice to be able to do them without any pain. Putting your shoes on, socks on – things like that. Having the limitations and the pain is not allowing me to enjoy competing or training or any of the stuff that (shrugs) I love about tennis.
Nothing helps. You’re in lots and lots of pain. You can’t do what you want to do, what you love doing. I can do it but it’s not fun. I’m not enjoying doing it. So … I mean. That’s what I’ve done. Tried to deal with it, talk about it. Ermm. But none of that makes my hip feel better unfortunately. I wish it did, cause if it did, I’d be feeling brilliant just now but it doesn’t. So…” (Gets up and leaves.)

His deep sense of loss, confusion, pain and vulnerability came across clearly. It’s probably one of the hardest decisions of his life. I visualise a society, our society, creating space for such expression, not just for physical but also emotional pain. It’s going to be a tricky transition. I am sure he has the required support network in place. Good luck Andy!

Ref: https://www.theguardian.com/sport/2019/jan/13/andy-murray-tennis-retirement

 

Drop the blank

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Fill in the blank:

I am not ________ enough.

smart
beautiful
funny
popular
slim
rich
happy
committed
intelligent
patient
trendy
young
fit
witty
creative
kind
normal
interesting
free
generous
articulate
punctual
likeable
whatever … is a construct of our tricky, small minds.

This year, let’s drop the blank / blanks and see what happens.
May 2019 keep us all reveling in the mysteries of life with open, loving and peaceful hearts!