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

Mum’s not the word.

He didn’t want to go. The new school was an hour’s drive from home. His bags were packed. Each piece of clothing had been labelled, “Baxter 289”. Each set had been neatly marked and packaged – rugby, cricket, football. He was getting ready to leave for the most prestigious Boarding school in town. Nothing less would do for a seven years old lad from such a good family as his. It was for his own good. This precious boy needed a proper education, even if he had to be separated from his sweet mum, wrenched away from his big house on the hill and the fields all around, his playground. This was unquestionably the right thing to do and it was being done. They would make a proper young man out of him. 

His mum knelt beside him in his room, combed his curly brown hair back from his forehead and kissed him there, gently. She looked at his freckled face and spoke apologetically, “I’ll see you at the weekend my darling.”

“I don’t want to go Mum.” He said, looking straight into her big blue eyes.

“I know sweetheart. But once you get there, you’ll have so much fun. You won’t want to come home” she said.

He looked at her face, his eyes now pleading. She felt an ache in her chest and looked down and away at the green Persian carpet.

“Don’t send me away. Please. I promise to be good.”

“My sweet, sweet child. Your dad only wants what’s best for you. Let’s not keep him waiting in the car.”

She held his hand and walked him out into the sunny afternoon of that last Friday in August. The sun was keeping the car warm even though all the windows were open. The day looked like it ought to be a happy one.

It was never the same again.

Forty years later.

He wanted to come home for Christmas. The Government had locked everyone in their homes because of the bugs. He lived in the big smoky town full of bugs. She still lived in her lovely big house on the hill in the open, clean and green countryside.

“It’s not as bad as they make it out to be Mum. We are well and strong and so are you. Nothing will happen. Don’t worry.”

‘I do worry darling. Let’s meet once this season of calamity is over.’

“I would really like to spend Christmas with you.”

‘Yes. That would be nice but I am not sure. The government has not given permission yet.’

“They really should. If they don’t, that would be more of a political decision than a scientific one.”

‘The Government only wants what’s best for us. Let’s not disobey the rules.’

That sounded familiar. He was seven again.

— — — — — — — — — — — — — — — — — — — — — — — — — —

Ref: How early maternal deprivation changes the brain and behavior? by Masa Cater and Gregor Majdic

EJN – 18 April 2021: https://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/10.1111/ejn.15238

Ordinary people

Once upon a time there was an ordinary person. Making a living, being honest, spending time with the family, having a few friends and simple pleasures. Nothing special. Just ordinary.

Then they lost their child to the monster of unbearable pain. They carried on breathing and giving and receiving love. There was nothing ordinary about that. They couldn’t bear the thought of the same thing happening to anyone else. So, they went out to tell the stories of their angels to everyone. To exhibit the smithereens of their bleeding hearts. That was not easy or normal but they did it anyway. To say that there were other options that they wish their kids had been encouraged to explore. To give out the phone numbers of the good people out there who can help. To remind everyone that there was hope. There is hope.

These 3 dads were ordinary people. Now they are walking together for 300 miles over 2 weeks, making waves all over the country, connecting with people, smashing the stigma and sharing the stories of their lovely girls. Ordinary and beautiful. Just like you.

Please listen and take a look at what’s possible when love speaks and acts.

Not ‘them’ and ‘us’. Just ‘us’.

It has been a dream to be face-to-face, talking about Saagar with the Psychiatric community. In the past 7 years that has not really happened. On Wednesday, the 15th of September, I got as up close as possible with an entire department of roughly 100 psychiatrists and Therapists at differing levels of experience and practice. They were in New York and I was here, in London. The Grand Round was organised by a colleague, Prof Mike Myers, who gave it the title:

‘Losing a Son to Suicide: How One Mother is Opening Hearts and Minds Around the World’

After a cordial ‘meet and greet’, the film ‘1000 days’ was screened. It was followed by complete silence. Same as the previous time it was screened. And the time before. Each time the audience was left speechless.

After a long minute I gently stepped in with the assurance that this was a normal response. I invited questions and comments. I thanked them for the work they do and acknowledged how difficult it is for the profession to deal with such losses. I shared my hope that the film will deepen their insights into the human element of such deaths and the value of forging partnerships with bereaved families.

What followed was a fulsome, creative and holistic exchange of ideas.

“What led you to make this film and share your life in this way?” one young Resident asked me.

“I could only work with what I had and do what was in front of me. When I could write, I wrote. When I could speak, I spoke. When I could learn, I learnt. From the moment I heard the news of Saagar’s death, my only intention was that this must stop. No one should have to suffer the way Saagar did or the way I and his friends do. This film came about because it’s time we recognize that these lives are worth talking about, that the desire to end one’s suffering is a normal human desire and that we all have a role to play.”

Winner – BEST DOCUMENTARY – Swindon Independent International Film Festival
Winner – Brighton Rocks Film Festival – Spirit Award
Winner – Compassion Film Festival Colorado – Reflections of Love People’s Choice Award
Nominee – Morehouse College Human Rights Festival Atlanta (winners yet to be announced) 
Semi Finalist – Gold Coast International Film Festival – New York 
Nominee – Long Story Shorts International Film Festival 

Upcoming festivals where the film can be watched starting 23rd September 2021. Tickets available now.

‘1000 Days’  
Morehouse College Human Rights Film Festival – fosters ongoing discussions about human rights and social and political issues.
September 23 – 25 https://morehousehumanrightsfilmfestival.com/2021-film-guide/

‘1000 Days’ at Women Over Fifty Film Festival:
WOFFF is an inclusive, international film festival celebrating women over 50 in front of, and behind the camera.
25 Sept – 2 Oct – tickets on sale
https://wofff21.eventive.org/films/61379c142c09f100b90ae7c4

Comments:

”Bringing people closer and keeping them deeply connected despite social isolation.”

“Keeping the silk threads of human bonds as strong as ever.”

I hate my shoes.

(‘A pair of leather clogs’ by Vincent Van Gogh 1853-1890)

“I am wearing a pair of shoes.

They are ugly shoes.

Uncomfortable Shoes.

I hate my shoes.

Each day I wear them, and each day I wish I had another pair.

Some days my shoes hurt so bad that I do not think I can take another step.

Yet, I continue to wear them.

I get funny looks wearing these shoes.

They are looks of sympathy.

I can tell in others eyes that they are glad they are my shoes and not theirs.

They never talk about my shoes.

To learn how awful my shoes are might make them uncomfortable.

To truly understand these shoes you must walk in them.

But, once you put them on, you can never take them off.

I now realize that I am not the only one who wears these shoes.

There are many pairs in the world.

Some women are like me and ache daily as they try and walk in them.

Some have learned how to walk in them so they don’t hurt quite as much.

Some have had to wear the shoes so long that days will go by before they think of how much they hurt.

No woman deserves to wear these shoes.

Yet, because of the shoes I am a stronger women.

These shoes have given me the strength to face anything.

They have made me who I am.

I will forever walk in the shoes of a woman who has lost a child.”

  • Author unknown.

One death by suicide is one too many. On World Suicide Prevention Day, today, let us start by

  1. believing that suicides are preventable.
  2. knowing that we all play a part, however small, by being aware, educated and resourceful.
  3. being kind and courageous enough to ask the ‘S’ question, listen and respond.

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.

Yummy!

It would be a bit much to say they are friends. But they are very fond of each other and meet up as often as they can which is about twice a year. They both care deeply for young people and support each other’s work. One is a dedicated mother of five. Keeps a beautiful house and garden. Cooks the best food. Sews gorgeous clothes and looks amazing. The second woman has one child who stopped living a few years ago. She doesn’t care much about her house or garden. Can’t use a sewing machine. Doesn’t pay much attention to her appearance.

The second woman appreciates the first one’s invitation to lunch. They sit at the dining table on top of which appear five large aromatic dishes straight from the oven – roasties, grilled carrots and broccoli, kale chips and baked salmon marinated in exotic spices.

As they settle down with their plates, the first woman starts “My Anne has been challenging since she was little. When she was six and we lived in South America, she got it in her head that she wanted to make a cloth tent. We went to the shops and she chose the materials in the green colour she likes. I put it together the best I could and then she wanted buttons and ribbons to go on it and I did all of that. When the tent was ready, I put it up in the living room before she returned from school with great anticipation. She took one look at it and declared “I no like.” She kicked it. It went lopsided and she went up the stairs to her room.”

“My Mike is dreadfully over-confident. He can charm anyone into telling him their secrets. He can make anyone laugh ….. And my Noel! He’s a big architect in Leeds and I love his girl-friend. She is so down-to-Earth. I am so glad they found each other …. And when they asked me what I wanted for my birthday …. And when we all went on a holiday ….. And when they got engaged …. And my Lisa! She is such a good designer. She comes up with original patterns for her tops and I stitch them for her. She carries her dresses like a model …. And my youngest… Oh! He’s full of ….”

The second woman places her attention on the delicious meal. She has no invitation to speak.

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.

No caller ID.

Soon after lunch one Saturday, my phone went. “No Caller ID”.

‘I am James Eames from the New World Building Society’s fraud investigation team. There have been some suspicious dealings with your debit card recently. So, I am calling to ask if you’ve given your card details to anyone lately?’ spoke a smooth cultured voice.’

“Hi. Let me think. On Monday I had an e-mail from DVLA saying I needed to update my card details to pay the road tax in time. So, I did.”

‘Right. So, that’s how they’ve got you. But, don’t worry. I have been doing this job for the last 17 years and I get to work every day, including sometimes a Saturday morning just so I can help people.’

“A bit like me then. For years I worked at least 2 weekends every month.”

‘So, I am just going to send you a text message with a code, just to verify your identity. When you get that could you read out your code to me?’

“Yes. Sure.”

‘So, I see that you have recently made a few purchases from Argos.’

“No. I have not.”

‘Ah. It must be them. We are liaising with the police to get to the computers they are using and that’ll help us catch them. So, don’t worry. This is very helpful. Could you read out the code to me?’

“Yes. It is ——.” I feel so stupid. How could I trust a random e-mail like that? I checked the site and it looked so proper – just like a government website.”

“They are very clever. You must check the sender’s e-mail address by pressing reply. You should also look out for e-mails claiming to be from DPD and Royal Mail.”

‘Gosh. It must be hard for you to keep ahead of the game with this kind of fraud, especially nowadays when everyone is banking on-line. It’s just a battle of wits. Isn’t it? And they are so smart. These youngsters.’

“Yes. We must stay sharp and we have very good security systems in place. So, that helps. I see that you move money regularly to Tina. When was the last time you did that?”

‘About 3 months back.’

“Can you trust her?”

‘Yes. Completely. She’s been a friend for 10 years.’

“Saagar?”

‘Yes. He passed away a few years ago.’

“Oh. So sorry! It seems these guys have set up a standing order in Tina’s name for 2000 pounds.”

‘Can’t you stop them?’

“Yes. We are working on that. In the meantime, can you ask your friend Tina if she has received the money? We might need to close your account and set up a new one for you.”

‘I’ll try.’ I go downstairs to get the handset of the landline and call her.

“Hi Tina. So sorry to bother you. Do you have a few minutes to speak? My bank is on the phone with me trying to sort out some stuff I need your help with.”

She confirms that she has got 2K from me. I am relieved as I know she will help me sort this out.

“Dr Mahajan, do you have a card reader?”

‘Yes.’

“Okay. If you get that and put your card in, I will give you a number to enter. Remember not to speak out your pin aloud please.”

‘Why do I need to do this?’

“To make sure that your card still works for you. If you put your friend Tina on the phone with me, I shall guide her on how to transfer the money back to you.”

Text from Tina – I just got 8,000 from you! Something is wrong. I am worried.

‘Tina says she has got 8,000 from me. I don’t even have that much money in my account. How are they doing this?’

“They might have moved money around from your savings etc. Don’t worry. Put her on the phone with me and I’ll take care of it. I have 17 years of experience in this kind of thing.”

I give Tina’s phone number to James.

I text her: James is trying to help us. He’ll call you soon. Please talk to him. Thank you!

She replies: Send me a picture of your card and I’ll transfer the money.

I do that.

James calls back, “Has she moved the money?”

‘She’s doing it. Please wait. There is no need to rush her.’

“Can you really trust her?”

‘Implicitly. She is highly talented and very hard working. She doesn’t need to cheat anyone.’ I say.

“I found her to be quite difficult. I am trying to help but she is being obstructive.”

‘Well, she has every reason to not fully trust you. You’ve only spoken with her for a few minutes. I have been speaking with you for nearly an hour now. So, it’s easier for me than for her to place her trust in you.”

“That’s right. I didn’t think of that. I can learn a few things from you. Are you doing something nice this weekend?”

‘Gosh! This is so nerve-wracking! Thank God I have a singing lesson in a little while. That’ll help calm me down. Thereafter I might watch a film on Netflix. Do you have a recommendation?’

“Yes. ‘The invisible Guest’ is in Spanish and it’s excellent.”

‘Ok. Thanks. I can recommend ‘Malcolm and Maria’ for you. It’s different. Intriguing. When do you finish work?’

“7.30 pm. I’ll probably get a pizza and watch the football.”

‘Great. Have fun when you get there. What happens now?’

“Can you check if Tina has moved the money?”

‘I don’t want to be so pushy. Let me send her a text.’

Any luck? I ask her.

She replies: I am on the phone with my bank. Nearly there.

Thanks Tina.

“Shall I log into my account and see if the money has come back?”

‘No. We are working on it. So, you won’t be able to access it now.’

“Okay. I am really tired now. Can we please finish this call? I am sure she will move the money back to me.”

‘I am tired too. Shouldn’t take long now.’

Text from Tina: That guy called you was fraud because when you just put your card in your card reader, just then was transferred money. 8000. He give me other account numbers. But I move money to what you give me.

“How do I know that you are calling from New World?”

‘Can you read the name of the sender of the texts?’

“Yes. They are from New World.”

‘That is your proof. That cannot be faked.’

More codes arrived, the card reader was used a couple more times. Finally, James was happy. He said it was all sorted. Gave me a reference code and signed off.

Later on when Si came home, I told him all about it and we looked at those text messages from New World. Each of them said –

“Never share this code with anyone. Only a fraudster would ask for it.”

I held my head in both my palms and broke into a sweat.

Once my breath returned, we phoned the fraud squad at New World and they told me that all the money that had been transferred out had been moved back into my account. A few purchases were attempted which did not get through:

JD Sports.

Fancy shoes.

Pizza.

(PS: Based on true events)