Be the Change

Be the change

RIP George Floyd.

The waves of raging violence in one form or another, in the street, on the TV, on Twitter, on Facebook, against the government, against one section of society or another. It is present everywhere I look. It seems to be the problem and the solution. Cops carrying guns to control gun-carrying people. Knees as weapons. Cries for mercy falling on multiple pairs of stone-deaf ears. Rich countries indiscriminately bombing poor ones in the name of peace, to bring them ‘liberty’. International leaders goading each other on to continue expanding their defence budgets.

I was born in a country of huge contrasts. It won its independence from the Brits, who ruled by the gun, under the leadership of Mahatma Gandhi, who lived and led by non-violence which was the core of Gandhi’s contribution to the world. For him nonviolence was the greatest force at the disposal of mankind, mightier than any weapon, superior to brute force. A living force that no one has been or ever will be able to measure the limits or extent of, just like love. In fact, he translated the Sanskrit word, Ahimsa (which literally means non-violence) as love.

True nonviolence is dissociated from fear. Gandhi felt that possession of arms is not only cowardice but also lack of fearlessness or courage. Gandhi stressed this when he said, “I can imagine a fully armed man to be at heart a coward. Possession of arms implies an element of fear, if not cowardice but true nonviolence is an impossibility without the possession of unadulterated fearlessness.”

The same country, India, classes some people as ‘untouchables’ and treats them as such. The discrimination against dark skinned people is ugly to watch. You only need to watch an Indian film and look at the mountains of money spent on the skin-whitening cream, ‘Fair and lovely’.

Saagar and I knew what it means to look different, be different. We both suffered in our own ways because of people’s instant judgements, inability to look beyond our skin and their downright unkindness.

Let’s teach ourselves and our children a new alphabet:

A – Abundance of love

B – Belonging / Brotherhood

C – Compassion/Connection 

D – Diversity

E – Empathy

F – Forgiveness

G – Giving / Gratitude

H – Harmony / Healing

I – Intimacy

J – Joy

K – Kindness

L – Listening / Learning

M – Meaning

N – Non-violence

O – Openness / Oneness

P – Peace

Q – Quest

R – Remembrance

S – Self-compassion

T – Trust

U – Unity in Diversity / Understanding

V – Victory over our inner demons

W – Wisdom

X – Xanadu (an ideal place of magnificence and beauty)

Y – You matter.

Z – Zeal for love and life.

Thank you Ma’am.

She was just over 4 feet tall but her voice boomed across the workshop as if it was arising from a big Bose speaker. She spoke, taught, lived, breathed Ikenobo, the oldest discipline in Japanese flower arranging, broadly known as Ikebana. 1400 years, to be precise. It was her life, her passion and she generously gave it to us, her students.

Initially I couldn’t figure out what I should call her. In India, I would have called her ‘Aunty’, but it didn’t seem right. Some called her by name but I couldn’t do that. I tried it but it felt wrong. She was nearly my mum’s age. I dug out the word ‘Ma’am’ from my college days, a term used to address female teachers. It felt right to me and seemed fine by her.  

She drew schematic diagrams of arrangements on a white board in front of the class, explaining the name, function, quality and significance of each component. She emphasised the relationship between different parts of an arrangement but mostly, she spoke of the importance of spaces between them.

Wood symbolized mountains while grasses and flowers suggested water. A natural landscape, in a single vase. It was a meditation of sorts, exploring the relationship between the sky, humans and earth, between the outdoors and indoors. It had philosophical representations of the past, present and future. It was about harmony and the laws of nature, a welcome break from the cacophony of London.

After Saagar passed away, she gently encouraged me to join her classes. She knew this art form would help. Mondays became exciting because they were the day of the lessons. Couldn’t believe how little they cost. It definitely was not about money. I joined this community of aspiring flower-arrangers who like me, were constantly baffled by how minor changes made by her, transformed our arrangements into spectacular creations.

Ma’am was a walking-talking Encyclopaedia on all things garden. She had looked after award winning gardens for most of her life. She knew wholesale flower markets intimately and could predict and cherish the floral offerings of every month, every season accurately. But last week, an unfortunate accident suddenly took her away from us, from this earth.  

“Not only beautiful flowers but also buds and withered flowers have life, and each has its own beauty. By arranging flowers with reverence, one refines oneself”, she would say.  

We will miss you and your finesse, Ma’am. My head bows to the space left by you. Thank you for helping me see beauty in everything.

Freedom on a page

Writing is a friend. It sustains. It slowly pushes open the rusted, jammed doors of many hearts and allows for the gaping wounds in there to heal. Over the last few weeks it’s clear that it is not just possible but fun, to attend and host meetings remotely. Despite challenges, it can be enriching. A wise man/woman has identified 3 things one needs, to get through a day :

  1. Someone to love.
  2. Something to do.
  3. Something to look forward to.

No wonder people are gardening, baking, embroidering and doing various things, spending time or connecting in creative ways with people they love. We have been setting one episode of ‘The Crown’ as our carrot, to look forward to at the end of a long ‘working from home’ day. I have been writing some poetry and dreaming of putting a book together and getting it published some day. There goes my Ego …. again!

This seems like a good time to do something new. I would like to invite you to write with me. To connect with your hearts and bring a blank page to life. To find your own expression and share other people’s worlds through their words and prose. We would call ourselves “Freedom on a page”. In this time of partial captivity, this title seemed appropriate. If you have other suggestions, please bring them to the group. We would meet every Tuesday morning for an hour and a half – between 9 and 10.30 am on Zoom. We would write as much as we like during the week but have 200-300 words to read out to the group. If you would much rather only listen, that’s fine too. Join in. Don’t think so hard that you talk yourself out of it. You have done that before. Haven’t you? 😉

If you would like to join, please

(1) e-mail me at kidsaregifts20@gmail.com by Saturday, the 23rd of May. If you’d like more time to decide, take that time and send me the e-mail when you are ready.

(2) familiarise yourself with Zoom (https://zoom.us/) and download it on your computer/phone. It is free and easy. You can switch the video off if you don’t want to be seen. You can participate by writing on the ‘chat’ if you don’t want to speak.

I will send you an invite by e-mail on Monday, the 25th. I will start the meeting 15 minutes before 9 am, UK time (GMT+1) on Tuesday, the 26th of May and wait for you. Then we’ll see what happens. I have never done this before so I am a little bit nervous too. Shall we write about what ‘Freedom’ means to you? Feel free to pick any other subject. I look forward to this adventure. Depending on how you feel, we can continue to ‘meet-up’ every Tuesday.

Try it. Magic happens when the naked tip of a pen meets a nude blank page. The fingers holding that pen are deeply connected to the real you. So are the fingers typing on your keyboard.

Freedom on a page

Feathers fall from heavens like rain

A splash of sun-rays on the pavement lifts dust

Fills my senses with petrichor

The romance of which dances

In every gap, crack and crevice

I float up with the fragrance

And glide along the tops of trees

Breathe in bliss, touching green

Everything IS, as it IS

Watching its own ISNESS

Wrapped in a melodious silence.

This must be it

One moment of being fully alive.

— — — —

Vite Vine

Darling Saagar,

You learnt your English in the UK from English-speaking people. I learnt it in fits and starts from Hindi/Punjabi/Bengali-speaking folk in India. It was not a surprise that you were only 10 when you took it upon yourself to start correcting my English. All the time.

“Saagar, please would you close the vindow?”

“The parent’s meeting is on Vednesday. No?”

“Where does the best Vite Vine come from?”

You would be all over the floor. What was funny? These were simple questions. In Hindi, there is an equivalent for ‘v’. None for ‘w’. The sound of ‘w’ is learnt. I learnt it and can apply it to everything except nouns. Must be a genetic aberration. I had a huge sense of achievement when I made you laugh, given my sense of humour was nothing compared to yours.

Other words that I spoke wrongly were – rebel (re-bell), adolescence (a-doll-essence) and such.

Sometimes I knowingly uttered incorrect sentences, so you could correct me, playing with your predictable pleasures.

“Bought a really nice t-shirt today.” you said.

‘What colour?’

“Not ‘what colour’ Mamma. It’s ‘which colour’.”

‘Ah. Right. What colour?’ I asked again with a crooked smile.

Rolling-up your eyes, shaking your head from side to side.

“Parents!”

Laughter.

We’re in lockdown at present, Saagar. Long story! I can’t help thinking how fab it would be to have you home. We would have so much time together to try new recipes, to exercise and laugh, play carom and do some gardening, relax and watch funny cat-videos and so on…

Time … tic-toc, tic-toc … gone forever.

My mind plays silly monkey-tricks with me. The rascal. I watch it. Holding my own, I am not getting carried away with it. I am being the witness (vitness).

You are here, with me always.

I love you.

Yours,

Mamma.

What do people need?

Thanks for this N.

It finally got me. This wretched forced and voluntary isolation. No wonder solitary confinement is a well known punishment. Mon, Tues, Wed were very deep blue. A friend’s dad’s funeral, a very unwell teenager … but underneath it all, missing my people. The screen did not suffice any longer. It only frustrated me. The phone was a sordid excuse for ‘contact’. I wanted to be with real people in a real way. Feel the fabric of a friend’s scarf between my palms, share a pot of tea and a big slice of carrot cake at a local cafe and laugh till I cry and such simple pleasures.

For now, gotta hold my horses and know you are there and soon we’ll meet again. Thank you for being there for me, my people. I am here for you too.

“People need people,
To walk to
To talk to
To cry and rely on,
People will always need people.
To love and to miss
To hug and to kiss,
It’s useful to have other people.
To whom to moan
If you’re all alone,
It’s so hard to share
When no one is there.
There’s not much to do
When there’s no one but you.
People will always need people.

To please
To tease
To put you at ease,
People will always need people.
To make life appealing
And give life some meaning,
It’s useful to have other people.
It you need a change
To whom will you turn.
If you need a lesson
From whom will you learn.
If you need to play
You’ll know why I say
People will always need people.

As girlfriends
As boyfriends
From Bombay
To Ostend,
People will always need people-
To have friendly fights with
And share tasty bites with,
It’s useful to have other people.
People live in families
Gangs, posses and packs,
Its seems we need company
Before we relax,
So stop making enemies
And let’s face the facts,
People will always need people,
Yes
People will always need people.”

Benjamin Zephaniah

Twenty six

The Broth of Grief bubbles on the back burner. Today it exploded.

Splattered all over the walls, floor and ceiling. It flooded the kitchen. It was everywhere.

Sticking in my eyes. Digging into my chest. Wrapping my wrists.

Five tornados running through me. Becoming me.

Softening me.

The broth is sticky-sweet as love, the source of everything.

The beginning, middle and the end of everything.

The air in my lungs, the lashes on my eyelids.

The wings of a butterfly in Japan, the moon that’s nearly full today. Sitting outside my window.

You and me and everything between us, my love.

“No coming. No going.

No after. No before.

I hold you close to me.

I release you to be free.

Because I am in you and

You are in me.”

– Thich Nhat Hanh

Let’s not … go back to ‘normal’.

Toilet signs designed by young people at Orygen. Australia. (https://oyh.org.au/)

When I first came to the UK, I thought of myself as nothing more than a human being, a doctor, a mother. I came here with one suitcase full of books, inappropriate clothes and lots of dreams. Over the years, slowly, through events good and not-so-good, I was made aware that I was a ‘female doctor from ethnic minorities’. Others may see me thus but I still see myself as a human, a doctor, a mother.

Before our world was invaded by a microscopic organism, we were divided. Identity politics dominated all conversations. ‘Vegans’ wanted to convert me to their religion. ‘Vegetarianism’ just wasn’t good enough. Fingers were being pointed at seemingly evil ‘middle aged white men’, as if they were all the same. I found myself defending them in public as I am on the inside. I am married to one of the nicest of them. The ‘transgender’ community was making its presence felt in a big way. The BME and the LGBTQ++ and the sexists and the racists, the liberalists, the socialists, the nationalists and the list is endless … were firmly rooted in their fenced off, defensive little territories.

Then came the virus and we were all united in the knowledge that we were fragile creatures and we needed each other to survive. We needed to look after ourselves and each other, in ways that were more meaningful and different from before. We learnt that the mind needed as much attention if not more, than the body. We found out that we are related to everyone else on the planet whether we liked it or not. We needed to rise above our little ‘Me. Me. Me’ voices and make decisions in favour of what was good for everyone.

We found out that small things are big things. My lovely neighbour, M, left a bunch of flowers outside the door for me every week. I arranged those flowers the best I could and sent her the pictures. I wrote hand-written letters to friends from my childhood with whom I was starting to lose connection. I discovered the joy of sleeping for a few nights in a row without setting the alarm. Si and I discovered the joy of being in the house together for days, doing normal things – baking, gardening, meditation, going for a walk, reading, watching ‘The Crown’.

I say, let’s not go back to our ‘normal’ divisions and our frantic passions. Let’s take this opportunity to re-invent ourselves and the way we meet the world. Let’s not be driven by our fears and insecurities but by a sense of deep connection with ourselves, each other and the planet. Let’s take this new learning into the world we want to live in. It’s up to us.

India – talking Mental Health.

Asian countries account for more than 60% of world suicides.

According to the WHO, in the year 2016, suicide was the most common cause of death in the 15-39 age bracket in India, the highest in the South-East Asian region. India’s own official statistics, which map the number and causes of suicides in the country, have not been made public for the last three years, hindering suicide prevention strategies and efforts to implement the WHO’s recommendations in this regard.

In 2014, the WHO released a report with a series of recommendations for successful suicide prevention. It proposed a public health model for suicide prevention, consisting of four steps:

  • Surveillance
  • Identification of risks and protective factors
  • Development & evaluation of interventions
  • Implementation

India has not progressed beyond the first step. Lack of political will, social stigma and inadequate mental health awareness in the general and medical communities contribute to the continuous rise in the death rate of young people by suicide in India.

A Junior Doctors World Congress was held at my alma mater, Christian Medical College Ludhiana in April 2019. Si and I ran a Mental Health Workshop that was attended by 75 medical students from India and the wider South and South East Asia region. 

Motivated by this event, some students have established community mental health support networks and mentorship programmes at their respective institutions.  I am impressed with their passion to make a difference.

Here is an example:

Early March I was back in Delhi and was honoured to be invited by Shruti Verma Singh, the founder of a Youtube channel, Zen-Brain.com. She is determined to increase the emotional awareness in India and does it gently, through a series of interviews. We met one afternoon to talk about Saagar. I hope her work will help wake up the government, break social stigma and drive understanding and compassion.

A phone call.

Last week we got a call to assess a patient for a possible transfer to ITU. Our team of three anaesthetists went along with all our kit and PPE. From a distance, he didn’t look too unwell. And he looked young. I hoped he wouldn’t need too much intervention. We donned out protective equipment and looking like aliens, entered his cubicle. I checked his name and date of birth. He was born in the same year as Saagar. After making a quick assessment, we decided that his breathing needed support. We spoke to him about getting him off to sleep so that we could place a tube in his wind-pipe and assist his breathing. We explained to him that we would transfer him to ITU for further care.

By this stage he was shaking, his eyes swollen with fear. He asked to make a call to his mum. We stood back while he called her. He held the phone to his left ear while oxygen hissed through his face mask. We waited, watching his face slowly relax, his fear melting into tears that dripped down his cheeks. After what seemed like a long time, he said bye to her, told her he loved her, composed himself and said he was ready to go to sleep.

It was like watching the dance of life and death. Love and separation. Help and helplessness. I was grateful and pleased that this mum and this son could connect at this crucial time.

Saagar didn’t have this luxury. He didn’t get to call his mother. No words of comfort fell into his ears. No tears of relief spilt from his eyes. Nobody offered him their understanding. I felt sorry for his mother too. She didn’t have a chance to say good-bye, to tell him that she loved him, that she would pray for him and that she wished him the very best.

When there is political will, governments can bring countries to a shrieking halt, the world can come to a stand-still.

When it is a physical illness, millions of pounds can be spent in seconds. New hospitals can be erected within weeks. Multiple trainings can be put in place for the front-line staff. Awareness campaigns are everywhere. What to do, what not to do, repeated endlessly. Retired doctors can be redeployed. National economies can be allowed to crash. Everything else can be put on hold.

When it is a mental illness, there isn’t enough money. There isn’t enough time. Not enough people. Very little expertise. No effective awareness-raising campaigns. No appropriate spaces. Not enough beds. Not enough research. The bottom-line is that there just isn’t enough respect for the fact that people with mental angst suffer the same, if not worse than those with physical ailments. That on many occasions they too, die alone.

 Its about Respect and Political Will.

The Sliding.

Ryan woke up at least twice every night to run to the loo. But last night he moved like a little whirlwind under the sheets. Sue slept through most of it but found it peculiar. She didn’t say anything, lest it disturb him but he disturbed her at least every hour without knowing it.

She woke up feeling tired at 6.30 am. It was a Monday morning. The day of the week didn’t matter much any more as both of them had recently retired. She as a head-mistress of a primary school and he as an accountant.

Their daughter lived in Liverpool with her boy-friend. Her job as a personal trainer at David Lloyds was less than they’d hoped for her. Her boy-friends spoke funny but for a living, wrote speeches for prominent people. The phony politicians who couldn’t even write what they wanted to say to the people they represented.

Sue put the kettle on and freshened up while it whirred. She put two green and gold Wedgewood cups and saucers on a tray along with a matching milk pot and a tea pot large enough to hold 4 cups. She entered the bedroom with the tray. Instead of sitting up in bed thumbing his phone, Ryan was flat on his back. His eyes red and fine vertical lines above his nose.

‘Morning!’ she sang, ‘You ok darling?’

With a smile, she placed the tray on his bedside table and placed her hand on his forehead.  

“Yes. I’m fine.” Said Ryan.

‘Did you sleep well?’

“Not really. The temperature in this room was all over the place. Couldn’t settle.”

The temperature was just fine, she thought but decided to stay mum.

‘Care for a cuppa?’

“Yeah. Sure.” Ryan raised his head off the pillow. An oval wet patch was imprinted on the white cotton pillow case. He quickly turned it around and stood it up against the cushioned head-board. She noticed but did not comment. She poured the golden-brown tea into the cups and added a few drops of milk for him. Over this first month of their retirement they had been falling into a nice little routine. Opening the day with a shared pot of tea was a special pleasure for them both. It made space for the rest of the day to slide into their lives.  

“What shall we do today?” she asked Ryan.

‘I miss my work. All the friends I had. My clients. The window in front of my desk. The 11 am coffee with colleagues. The laughter. I even miss the commute. I never thought I’d hear myself say that but it was nice. I miss all that.’

“Yes. I am sure. I miss my work too but not much. Shall we go to the garden centre and get some saplings? This is a good time for planting. The Organic Café does some nice coffee too.”

‘Let’s see. I might just enjoy the sun-shine in our garden today.’ He got up to visit the loo again. This was not like Ryan. He was the one who normally put ideas forward and she was the one who normally said yes or no.

As soon as he left the room, she put her cup down and stood up to get a closer look at the other side of his pillow. It was definitely damp. She peeled back Ryan’s side of the duvet. The bedsheet underneath him was certainly moist. It smelt of him. Only stronger. This was unusual.

Sue’s pulse quickened. She’d heard of people working really hard all their lives and then dying soon after their retirement. She shoved her silly thoughts aside and waited for Ryan to come back, trying to focus on the delicateness of the tea.

When Ryan came back, she was surprised to hear the puffing sounds of his breathing. His brow had started to glisten.

“Would you rather have a lie-in Ryan?”

‘No. I am ok. Nice tea. Don’t make an old man of me. I’ll be fine once I’ve had a shower. It’s funny. My left arm feels strange. Must’ve slept funny.’

Now she could hear her own heart pumping in her ears. But she kept it cool.

She managed a fake smile. A polite false agreement. She wanted to jump at the phone and dial 999 but didn’t want to scare Ryan.

“There’s no rush to have a shower. More tea?”

‘No. Thanks. I’ll get myself a glass of water.’

“Don’t worry. I’ll get it for you.” She jumped.

At the kitchen sink Sue stood like a statue, staring at the water pouring down the hole in the stain-less steel basin. Is today the day my life changes for ever?

She debated with herself on what to do next. A tug of war went on within her. Does he know he’s unwell? Is he really unwell or am I imagining this? Is that new virus in him? In our house? In our bed? Will he be terrified if I tell him what I think? Is he just having the blues? Or a heart attack? Or an infection? Or nothing at all?

She carries the glass of water back to Ryan. He glugs it back and slowly slides back inside his duvet. She walks around to her side of the bed, slips under the covers and lays down right beside him, holding him with both her arms, a little bit tighter than usual.

Like a couple of soft cuddly toys, they snuggle up. In that moment, she has all she needs. Ryan breathing, resting right next to her. Her tears meld into her pillow. The past and the future disappear. In that moment, life is whole and complete.