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.

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.

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.

Nowhere to go.

On the 9th of March, I reached Melbourne for the second leg of the Churchill Fellowship. I had been looking forward to it for ages and just couldn’t wait to get started. I had the taken the whole month off. Despite the long journey I didn’t feel any fatigue. My AirBnB was homely and comfortable. After a good night’s sleep, I was ready for work.

The Beyond Blue Office was easy to find. After a brief introduction to the team, we all went out to get coffee together. I was already one of them and the coffee was great. The following days flew past with meetings, interviews, presentations and briefings. A trip to Headspace. Despite some background murmurings of a virus, I was having the best time, learning and exchanging thoughts and ideas. Then Australia closed its borders. Meetings and conferences started getting cancelled.

On the 16th, I took a return flight to London.  My trip shrank from 3 weeks down to one. I had to miss Sydney altogether. Now, I am back here with a blank diary for 2 weeks and I am loving it. I have volunteered myself to work and I am on standby.

I can now research and look up things I’ve been meaning to for a long time. I can clear out one cupboard every day and get rid of stuff I don’t need or use or get joy from. Unclutter and create space in my house and my head. I can go to bed without setting an alarm. That pile of unread books that’s been sitting atop my table, feeling ignored and giving me dirty looks, can now be tackled.

Part of me is rushing in to fill the time with a list of a hundred things to do but I am consciously slowing down. Having an easy routine. Fitting in things I love doing, like arranging flowers. Making time for friends. Cooking. Walking. Not getting hooked to the media but keeping an eye. Writing hand-written letters to loved ones. Sitting still. Enjoying our home. Truly appreciating the weirdness of our cat, Milkshake. Cherishing having breakfast, lunch and dinner with Si as he works from home.

Simplify. Make easy. Make plain.

The Way Back – supporting attempt survivors – an idea worth adopting.

Gullyboy (Street boy)

A Hindi film about young boys growing up in slums, turning into rappers.
(Nominated for the best foreign film at the Oscars 2020.)

Angst escapes as words and song,

To a simple metre they belong.

Expression is art.

Connection at its core.

Honest.

Straight from the heart.

Stay in the flow Bro. Stay in the flow.

Keep working at it.

Be proud of what you is.

Know that all will change.

Nothing is too strange.

Dig deep and dig deep.

Be the shark of the deep.

Not a gold fish in a bowl. Yo.

Stay in the flow Bro. Stay in the flow.

Our day will come

Every dog has his day.

Doesn’t look great right now.

But it will go away.

Respect …. yourself. Yo.

Stay in the flow Bro. Stay in the flow.

The heat of strife will melt your chains

And set your spirit free.

Your friends will stand by you

No matter what may be.

Stay rooted and look high.

Like an eagle. Fly.

No fright. Just flight. Yo.

Stay in the flow Bro. Stay in the flow.

Know. Just know.

It’s okay to show.

The wounds that hurt you so.

Someone will understand.

Trust in life and let go.

Stay in the flow Bro. Stay in the flow.

You are not all alone.

Though it may seem so.

Prayers and blessings galore

Are sewn into the seams of your clothes.

You wear them all the time

But you just don’t know.

You are a rare diamond.

You are my heart and soul.

You are the sun, the moon,

The galaxy to me.

But you could never know.

Stay in the flow Bro. Stay in the flow.