Two suitcases, three homes.

Diwali at home with Mum and Dad – after ages!

Nineteen months passed before I could travel again. The uncertainty in the air for all this time meant no one knew when they would see their close family that lived in far-off countries. The news relayed the horrendousness of the situation in India and the 6700 kilometers between them and me made me feel utterly powerless. I would have flown to India at least thrice in this time but I waited for it to become possible.

Then, it did. Si booked my tickets and I felt like I was flying already but coming up to the date of travel, the extra layer of bureaucracy turned me into a tight knot of nerves. This test, that certificate, the other QR code, the timing of this, the reference number of that, one on-line form to be filled on the way out and another on the way back and so on and so forth. I had 2 close friends on speed dial, one in India and the other, a frequent flyer in the UK.

Yet, in the run up to the date of departure, my antacid consumption seriously shot up. In my awful dreams, the faceless uniforms looked at my paper work and shook their heads from side to side. They sent me back home from the airport. They told me I would have to quarantine at the other end in a seedy hotel for 10 days. That would eat up more than half my holiday. I woke up in a bath of sweat.

My two suitcases were mostly packed with chocolates, cheeses, cheese-crackers, sheep’s wool, woolly jumpers, bamboo socks and other such goodies for my folks. I got on the plane at Heathrow and landed at New Delhi safely, utterly grateful to be united with all my loved ones back home. How much I take for granted!

I immersed myself in the everyday life back home- boiling milk, making chapattis, creating rangolis at Diwali, indiscriminately consuming sweets dripping in desi ghee, singing, praying, chatting and overeating at every meal. I set aside my concerns about pending jobs, deadlines for writing assignments, hacked e-mail accounts, consciously locked them away in a clanking steel Godrej cup-board.  

Yes, there was pollution and poverty. There was religious and political bigotry. There was the Right and the Left and the Middle, the Farmer’s protest, the choked Press and the Covid dictats. There was my mind, noticing that Saagar was not physically present in the room. His cousins were messing about, grandma was cooking his favourite chicken curry, Olivia Rodrigo was singing ‘Jealousy Jealousy’ on the Bose speaker, his uncles and aunts were drinking beer and chomping on roasted, salted cashew nuts, talking about the joys of driving on the new highways network and the high price of petrol. We were celebrating our togetherness but he was not here.

In that thought, he became present to me. His essence appeared in the room, as me, my presence, my noticing, my love and my longing. It was subtle, only perceptible at a certain frequency that in now accessible to me. This nameless, formless realm that makes itself known when I pay attention. My real home. Its doors always open.

Before I knew it was time to come home. My two suitcases filled with silk and cotton fabrics, saris ‘borrowed’ from my mother, home-made carrot halwa, cashews and almonds and proper Darjeeling tea.

I am back home from back home now. Rested and reconnected. Refreshed and reassured.

All is well. All is well.

A report and a film.

A report published last month by National Child Mortality Database (NCMD) identifies common characteristics of children and young people who die by suicide between 1st April 2019 and 31st March 2020. It investigates factors associated with these deaths and makes recommendations for policy makers.

Every child or young person who dies by suicide is precious. These deaths are a devastating loss for families and can impact future generations and the wider community. There is a strong need to understand what happened and why, in every case. We must ensure that we learn the lessons we need to, to stop future suicides.

Key Findings:

-Services should be aware that child suicide is not limited to certain groups; rates of suicide were similar across all areas, and regions in England, including urban and rural environments, and across deprived and affluent neighbourhoods.

(No one is immune.)

-62% of children or young people reviewed had suffered a significant personal loss in their life prior to their death, this includes bereavement and “living losses” such as loss of friendships and routine due to moving home or school or other close relationship breakdown.

(Saagar was unable to return to his life at University due to a new diagnosis of a mental illness.)

-Over one third of the children and young people reviewed had never been in contact with mental health services. This suggests that mental health needs or risks were not identified prior to the child or young person’s death.

(Saagar had been in contact with Mental Health Services but they discharged him as soon as he showed signs of improvement. They did not follow him up. His GP was unable to identify his high risk of suicide despite his Depression scores being the worse they could be for at least 4 weeks.)

-16% of children or young people reviewed had a confirmed diagnosis of a neurodevelopmental condition at the time of their death. For example, autism spectrum disorder or attention deficit hyperactivity disorder. This appears higher than found in the general population.

(Saagar did not.)

-Almost a quarter of children and young people reviewed had experienced bullying either face to face or cyber bullying. The majority of reported bullying occurred in school, highlighting the need for clear anti-bullying policies in schools.

(At his Primary school in Belfast, his peers called him ‘Catholic’. He didn’t know what it meant but he knew it was not right. This went on for more than a year before I found out. When I spoke to his class teacher about it, she denied any problem.)

The film ‘1000 days’ tells us about Saagar and what we have learnt from his life and death. I am not sure what or how much the policy makers and service providers have learnt or changed but we have learnt and changed a lot and here we talk about that. The film is presently available on-line at the Waterford Film Festival (Short Programe 6), till the 15th of November at the link below. Please take 20 minutes to watch it if you can. You will learn something too. Each one of us can make a difference.

https://waterfordfilmfestivalonline.com/programs/collection-jlvwfxb8ctq

Now, they are pink.

The day after he died, our door-bell went berserk. This time the same young woman from the local florist, who had been here thrice already, stood at the door again. She had arrived with yet another bouquet of pure white lilies and roses. She stood just outside our front-door with tears rolling down her cheeks. Had this stranger accessed her own sadness or was she feeling mine? I thanked her and tried to console her, wordlessly holding her hands in mine, not believing any of that was happening.

Our eyes met through the fresh white flowers and films of salt water. She didn’t know me or the young man who had died and I didn’t even know her name. But we were flowing in the same river of humanity. Of loss.

For weeks, every room in our house reeked of the sickly-sweet stink of white lilies. I used to like that fragrance before all this but now it screamed ‘DEATH’. It crept into every empty space, crevice and corner. It sneaked under tables and inside locked cup-boards. It suffused my clothes and hair and got into my body like poison.

All these years later, that smell can still hit like an axe on top of my head when I walk past an innocent flower shop.

On my birthday last week, a bunch of Freddie’s flowers arrived unexpectedly. I thought I had cancelled that delivery but it seems I hadn’t. Roses, lilies and gladioli – but this time, they are a pretty pretty pink. Six days on, they are open and smiling and guess what … no heart-breaking fragrance.

Our long-distance relationship is working. Thank you, sweetheart.

Only one race.

You are not your body. Who you are has nothing to do with how you look.

You are not your mind, your thoughts, your feelings or your memories. All those things are aspects of you but they are not you. They change from moment to moment. Thoughts come and go. Feelings mould. Thousands of old cells are shed and replaced by new ones every second.

During my training to be a doctor, I had to dissect a human body. It was an enlightening experience. On my first day at medical school, it was a shock – the massive Anatomy hall reeking of Formalin, 12 metallic rectangular tables, each occupied by a horizontal human form 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.

As I carefully peeled the skin off, a pale yellow silky layer unraveled 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.

We laugh and cry the same salty tears, we feel the same love, we yawn and sneeze and hiccup and breath the same way. We all are distinct and yet, more or less the same. We are all made up of a substance called ‘love’. We carry the whole Universe inside of us.  We are bundles of boundless cosmic energy. Our bodies are vehicles for us to experience this Earth and for this fantastic energy to express itself. Let us not allow anyone to tell us how we should look, as their vision may be limited. Be fully expressed. Don’t let their limitation be yours. You are whole and complete, just the way you are, no matter what anyone says. Don’t let anyone let you love yourself any less than one thousand percent. Your love and compassion for yourself is the source of all joy for all humanity.

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 handsome brown young man. Underneath, we all are human. We have the privilege of coming from the most gorgeous star. Our numbers are higher than ever before and our potential as a race is the highest it has ever been. 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 colour of our skin, our religious convictions, our gender, our choice of sexual partners or our private medical choices. We need bridges, not walls. We need to see ourselves in others and them in us – vulnerable, tough and unique at the same time. Everyone. Absolutely everyone.

I say to all you planning and scheming and dreaming, defending, proving, and justifying, laughing, crying, and feeling people, wanting love and understanding, offering love and understanding people:

 “You be me.  I be you.  They be us. We be them. All be one. Love be all. All be love. Only love. Get down on it.”

One moment on a Friday morning.

Time is a scaffolding. Not the real thing. A construct. A transactional entity. An illusion. A convenience. A cage.

The Time is always Now.

Right now I hear Si pottering in the kitchen downstairs.

Michael, his friend is waiting in his car outside the front door. The engine is whirring, parked slightly to the left of the middle of the road with just enough space for passing cars to slide past.

My second cup of tea is waiting. Steaming.

The sunshine had penetrated many curtains to reach the park across the road.

The wind is gently encouraging the trees to wake up and dance.

The indoor plants watered this morning are feeling fresh. A large green Poinsettia (from last Christmas) on my left and a pink orchid on my right.

The ‘to-do’ list is staring at me from the far side of my table, feeling left-out. My Mind is pulling hard at me, trying to get me out of writing, into ‘doing stuff’. I am watching it. It looks like a toddler yanking at her Mum’s dupatta pleading for attention.

Black and green bins are lined up in tidy rows on the pavement along both sides of our street, waiting to be emptied. Five years ago, when the bin-collection day changed from Tuesday to Friday, I immediately thought I must tell Saagar. Then I remembered. Now, I think of him when I see the bins. I recall us putting the bins out together. In the Now. I feel that memory become a twinge in my chest. Sometimes, it becomes a cloud in both my eyes.

Now, I hold him in my heart on Fridays and every other day. He lives in me. Speaks through me. Sees the world and keeps me calm.

The neighbour’s son’s school bus stops at the same spot every day. He boards it wearing his yellow anorak every day. He sits at the same seat every day – by the window on the left, second row from behind.

The world goes on and I go on with it, carrying you in me. Loving you. Keeping you alive.

Fresh off the boat

Twenty-two years ago, when I first landed in the UK, I arrived as a qualified anaesthetist. I didn’t think of myself as a ‘female doctor’. I did not classify myself as one from the ‘ethnic minorities’. Both of those things were incidental to the fact that there was a job to be done and I could do it well, even if it was in a completely different setting, four and a half thousand miles away from home, at Antrim Area Hospital, Antrim, Northern Ireland. I was nervous but being from an army family, I was accustomed to moving every couple of years from one state of India to another (states as different as Punjab and Bengal), making it my own, learning from a different way of life and moving on to the next. I was sure of my ability to adapt.

My belongings comprised of a family photograph in a silver frame, a suitcase, mostly filled with books and two hundred pounds in cash. From the window of the plane I could see forty shades of green, in a mesmerising patchwork across the fields and hills of Ireland. The sky was the deepest, most startling blue. My heart was up in my throat with the excitement of living and working in a country where everyone was educated (why wouldn’t they be if education was free?)  and well-mannered (why wouldn’t they be if everyone was well looked after by the Government?)

One of the secretaries from the Antrim Area Hospital, Mary, very kindly came to receive me at the airport. The drive from Aldergrove Airport to the hospital was like gliding through a picture postcard. After Delhi, I could fully appreciate the wide golden-green expanses gleaming in the sunshine with not one human being in sight. When I complemented Mary on how gorgeous her country was, she was perplexed, “Really?”

Saagar was 5 years old then. He had stayed back with his dad. My plan was to find my feet and have him join me as soon as possible. I wanted to get my post-graduate exams within one or two years and go back to work in India. In the next few months, as I settled into my job, I acquired a cheap second hand Renault 19, found a family home and an appropriate child-minder. In the tea room of the hospital, the nurses would tell me about their families and ask me about mine. When I told them that I had a 5 years old child back home, they would say, “How could you leave him there?” I didn’t know what to say to that.

I still don’t.

Watch it!

After a long wait, we can watch it. Not in a cinema but on the largest screens available in our homes. You might know that a few years ago we set out to make a short documentary on the life of Saagar and our lives after him. I am so happy that it can now be watched at the link below by clicking on the box that reads 1000 days and entering the password as suggested: hiddenFF2021

https://www.festivalreel.org/hff-2021

Presently this film is available through the Hidden Film Festival website but in time it will be a resource to increase the understanding of suicide and bereavement by suicide and the value of kindness. I hope it will generate constructive, life-affirming and healing conversations. It is 20 minutes long and is available till Friday, the 4th of June. At present it is doing the rounds of international film festivals and has been selected for 7 major ones. Thank you for holding Saagar in your hearts the way you do. For shouting out love and hope.

Cast: Freddie, Hugo, Seb, Sam, Bex, Rosie, Azin, Simon, Saagar and I.

Filmed and produced by the magical duo Jeanette Rourke and Ron Bambridge.

What some people have said:

“I cannot get the film out of my head (in a good way!). I am really impressed with the professional job done on the filming and opening drone shots of where you live etc.”

“It is beautifully made and the editing done with such sensitivity. I also loved the music – definitely sounded like a professional music for film composer.”

“Thank you so much for the film and it really brought me a lot of comfort especially  in a rough week like today when I have grief burst. I am grateful to have to know you in this difficult journey and what you have been sharing about your beautiful Sagaar, your thoughts and your journey milestones has helped me tremendously.One thing I learnt from 1000 days is that the hope of surviving this unsurvivable pain which you gave me through your story. Thank you so much Sangeeta.”

Thank you all for funding this film. For illuminating this world in your own special way!

PS: Please feel free to share it on.

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 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.