At 15.

Cricket in the summers and badminton in the winters. That’s what Saagar chose to play during his school years. He was good at both and wanted to be better.

I often went along to watch him play, even though I didn’t appreciate all the technicalities of either game. One evening we gathered in the Sports club to watch him play. I noticed that every time he missed a shot he hit his right leg hard with the badminton racket gripped in his right hand. That must hurt. I didn’t understand. It distressed me. I spoke with him later. “It’s only a game, darling.”, I said. He kept quiet, neither defending his action, nor arguing with me, pointedly focussing on the piece of ground hit by his obliquely downcast eyes.  In him I saw a boy in pursuit of perfection.

Out of the blue he broke up with his lovely girl-friend of 7 months. That too on Valentine’s Day. His first love. Sweet and innocent. On being asked why, he said, ”It’s boring.” Soon after, late one night I gleened tears in his eyes as he hugged me, pretending not to sob. In him I saw a boy, trying to be a man. Oh! The pains of growing!

After a night out with friends, one weekend I noticed a cluster of 3 pea-sized fresh burn marks on his right forearm. Horrified, I asked what happened. He said it was a dare. A few of his friends were being goofy and challenged him to hold the burnt end of a cigarette on his skin and he did. He laughed as if it was a joke. I didn’t know what to make of it. How could this bright kid with an astute sense of right and wrong be talked into this kind of silliness? In him, I saw a boy trying to fit in with his peers.

Was there more to see? Did he tell me everything or just what he thought I could handle?

Uganda Diaries

Frantically searching for an important document, I rummaged through all my papers up and down the Study. My mind can’t be trusted with anything anymore! My memory is shot. I exhausted myself and all my options. Over a cup of tea, I thought about all the places I had not looked through. A box full of Saagar’s books and diaries. I never read through any of his personal stuff. But that day, before I knew it, I had read all his musings from his travels to Uganda with a friend. They were there for 2 weeks to help at a local school supported by their College.

It seems when he was struggling, he wrote. Like me. He wrote exactly as he spoke, leaving some words half said and stretching out the first letter of unspeakable words. His diary was reading itself to me in his voice. I felt like he was in the room. I was an intruder. It wasn’t my place to read it. It was personal to him. But it was also my conduit to him even if it was written 27 months prior to Day 0.

It was clear that the boys were totally unprepared for the massive change. This is the note from his last day there.

30/7/2012. 2300 hrs.

“Never before have I been able to say the words “I want my mommy!” with as much certainty as now. This sucks ass. I feel like such a pathetic little shit. I hope missing Mother is no more than a manifestation of homesickness.”

A deep feeling. Then a judgement. Then an admonishment and then a substitution. A minimization. A classic example of a young man being brutally unkind to himself even though he is suffering. Being a ‘man’. Not allowing for any fragility even in the face of a harsh reality.

Fact: He missed me. Thinking of me brought him comfort. I have evidence.

How could I ever doubt that? By judging myself too critically. Why do we do this to ourselves?

That was a beautiful gift from you to me on your birthday my son. 25th birthday! Bless you my love.  

Heartbreak Syndrome

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Carrie Fisher: Date of death 27th Dec 2016.
Her mother, Debbie Renolds’ date of death: 28th Dec 2016

Emiliano Sala: Plane Crash – 21st Jan 2019
(Death confirmed 13 days later).
His father, Horatio Sala’s date of death – 26th April 2019

Both these parents died of natural causes. Horatio Sala was only 58. For days after the crash, he was not sure what was happening. “Hours go by and I know nothing. It makes me think the worst. I know nothing. Nobody has spoken to me. Not a call from the Embassy, the club, from anyone.”

I cannot imagine how stressful that must be. After the ‘worst’ was confirmed, the investigation was a protracted one. Horatio’s angst is palpable on the video clips. The grief and anger of it must have caused a sustained and prolonged release of adrenaline which greatly raised his pulse and blood pressure, making his heart work harder, making his blood sticky and ruining his immune system. Research also shows that in the first 30 days after a loved one dies, your risk of dying too is significantly increased. There are many stories validating this finding.

More than a month after the crash a BBC report said, “Some operational aspects are yet to be determined, such as the validity of the pilot’s licence and ratings.” What must that do to a parent! “Air accident investigators will continue to look at all operational, technical, organisational and human factors which might have contributed to the crash.”

They will continue to look I am sure but for the bereaved families, there is no resolution till the investigation is complete. They don’t feel settled until then. They are haunted by unanswered questions. The big and noisy fight inside overshadows everything else. There is no sign of ‘peace’ for at least a thousand mile radius. A prompt, fair and proper investigation is essential for them to start grieving properly. Losing a child is bad enough. A parent should not then have to fight for facts and justice.

Sadly, even the medical profession does not understand sudden traumatic grief. Often the investigations are a sham, take forever and produce vague statements like the ones above. I know many parents whose suffering is insulted and prolonged for this reason. This must change. It breaks my heart and many others.

PS: Very sorry for the pilot, Mr Ibbotson’s death. The system failed him too. If he did not have an appropriate licence, the system did not stop him from flying.

Visiting my adolescence

Innkeeper's wife

(The mean, very mean wife of the inn-keeper. Nativity play 1983. CMC Ludhiana. India.)

Once upon a time I used to be a kid. A bright and happy kid. I nearly forgot that girl. She used to be fun. She loved singing, dancing and play-acting. She had thick black, unusually curly, short hair. She laughed easily and played harmless pranks. She listened to music on the radio with such ardour that her day was planned around the timings of her favourite programmes on the Urdu service of All India Radio. The last few pages of all her notebooks were filled with scribbled lyrics of songs written at speed to keep pace with them as they played on the old Murphy which was a part of her mother’s dowry. Then she neatly transcribed the messy song-words from the back pages of her notebooks onto a special red diary which was her treasure.

A few months back I accepted an invitation from my alma mater, Christian Medical College, Ludhiana, India.  This is where I trained to be a doctor and an anaesthetist, nearly 30 years ago. They requested me to run a Mental Health workshop for about 70 medical students and make a Keynote address at the World Junior Medical Congress they were hosting in early April.

While preparing my lecture, I dug up a few old pictures. They flew me back in time. I saw what I looked like when I was Saagar’s age. It was a strange juxtaposition. So much had changed. Oh, that heart-breaking innocence! The stars in my eyes shone so bright, they nearly blinded me. Who was this lovely girl? Where is she now? She has walked a long way and formed a big circle. She is back where she started, working with what she has – her Love, her Grief and her Self.

MH Workshop

The workshop was four and a half hours long. The sharing was powerful, the enthusiasm infectious. The learning for all of us was invaluable. It was fun! We sang and we danced. We worked and we played. It was just like the old times. Saagar was there. He was smiling his crooked smile.

“There is nothing in the world, I venture to say, that would so effectively help one to survive even the worst conditions as the knowledge that there is a meaning in one’s life.” – Victor Frankl.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

A song and a prayer.

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Once upon a time I used to sing. My friends had to beg me to stop. In 1987, a whole bunch of us, medical students traveled from Ludhiana to Delhi to participate in the Annual music festival at All India Institute of Medical Sciences, called ‘Pulse’. It was just the perfect time for us to be and sing together. We belted out song after song for the entire duration of the train ride. Some onlookers were entertained and others annoyed but we were oblivious to them all. By the end of the journey, we were hoarse. I had no regrets that on the day of the competition, I sounded nothing like myself. I had had a great time.

I grew up in a house filled with music. The radio used to be on before we woke up in the morning and we followed the charts closely every friday on ‘Binaca Geet Mala’. My parents loved Hindi film music which by default is the most popular music in India. My mother has an uncanny ability to remember lyrics that I seem to have inherited. The popularity of the music of a film determines its box-office success. Our playback singers are worshiped like Gods.

Saagar found Hindi film music b-o-r-i-n-g!!! He thought it lacked imagination and the lyrics were always about romantic love. True. Yet, he accompanied me in my singing whenever I asked him. Despite the fact he didn’t know the songs, he played the drums or Djembe along to perfection. The boy had a solid sense of rhythm. After losing Saagar, I lost my songs. Some, I just couldn’t bear to listen to. Others, I could sometimes play for myself and occasionally enjoy. But singing was undoable. My tears would come tumbling in waves if I attempted it. For more than 4 years, I mostly stuck with words, Radio 4 and the random weekly music of someone else’s choice on Desert Island Discs. For the last 2 years, Si and I would dance to some of our favourites on Saturday evenings, while pottering around in the kitchen.

A few months ago, some songs came to me. They were devotional and Sufi. Initially, they came with tears of love, sorrow and gratitude. With practice, the tears learnt to hide. My friends accompanied me – Katie on viola and Rajesh on the tabla and finally, last week I gathered the confidence to sing in public after 5 years. It was an exercise in equanimity. It didn’t matter how melodious or off-key the song was, it was an offering from the heart. It was a way of loving and honouring myself, Saagar,  friends and families present and all the lovely people they had lost to suicide. It was a new beginning.

English translation of O Paalan hare

Oh, nurturing Lord, beyond description and beyond all,
Except you, we have no one
Ease our difficulties, oh God

Except you, we have no one
You are our only supporter
You are our only protector
Except you, we have no one.

It is you who has filled the moon with moonlight
The sun’s brightness is from you
The sky is content, you have given it stars
God, if you don’t adorn this life
Then who will adorn it?

Oh, nurturing Lord, beyond description and beyond all,
Except you, we have no one.

If you listen, Lord, I shall make a plea
Give patience to the sorrowful
So that they never give in to their sorrow
Provide the powerless with protection
So that the powerless can live happily.

Provide our devotion with strength.
Provide our devotion with strength.

As you are the master of the world, please hear this plea
There is darkness in our path
Shine your divine light for us.

Oh, nurturing Lord, beyond description and beyond all,
Except you, we have no one
Ease our difficulties, oh God
Except you, we have no one.

Lyricist: Javed Akhtar
Composer: A R Rahman
Film: Lagaan

Youtube: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=arF8gWNFyZo

Recording: http://we.tl/t-npGeikz9QP?src=dnl

Venue: St Martin in the Fields. 9th March 2019.

Big thanks to Mary Kennedy for recording the song and to David Mosse for organising the Time to Talk service.

Thank you, Mr Bronx.

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He came to us as a little girl in 2004, from Antrim Animal Sactuary. We called him ‘Bella’ for a week before the vet told us he was a little boy. One of his ears had a wedge missing, a sign of having lived rough. That didn’t take his sweetness away. He jumped to the top of kitchen cabinets and mewed in protest for being locked up indoors. He loved being outside in the sun, watching the world go by and making friends with it. He played with anything – hair, wool, food, the mint plant, newspapers, laptops. He brought a light and joyful energy into our house.

He slept under my bed and some mornings I woke up, looking straight into his eyes. We had long conversations where each of us listened and allowed a gap after the other finished their sentence before starting to speak. Saagar was endlessly amused by this intimate interaction beyond language, where everything was being expressed and understood. In the evening, while I sat watching TV, Mr Bronx sat watching me.

Stroking him saved my life. He received love generously. That alone was enough.

He happily adopted the neighbours by pretending he wasn’t being fed at home. One day I found a note through my door. ‘Please feed your cat’ it said. Later I also found out that one of my lovely neighbours had set up a Facebook page to find support for this poor black and white cat on his street! Thank you, Bronx!!!

A few months ago the vet said that his thyroid and kidneys were not working very well. She put him on a special diet and some meds. We ran some blood tests, which indicated that he was slowly approaching the end of his life. So, we made the most of our time together, playing and eating and a lot of loving. Si found out Mr Bronx loved organic chicken. He treated him and himself to it often.

Last Friday Mr Bronx got a bit wobbly on his feet. On Saturday, all he wanted was to lie down. We spent the whole day together in the sun, listening to music and Radio 4, saying hello to passers-by and talking. That night he peacefully slipped away in his sleep. He now rests in his favourite place, our garden. Love you, Mr Bronx. Thank you.

Let’s play cricket. Not war.

athletics-ball-bat-161499071 years ago a random line was drawn across the map of our country by a historical giant who sat thousands of miles away from us and felt compelled to make a decision in a hurry. Not surprisingly, it was a bad decision that left a huge gash on the chest of Mother Earth that still bleeds. That historical icon didn’t care who we were, whether we were Indian or Pakistani, whether we were dead or alive. He is dead and gone but still winning. Let us not let him win. This is a new world. We can change history.

Open your eyes and see. We are one.

Look at us. We look the same. We speak the same language. We share the same mountains and rivers, the same sky, sun and moon. We share the same songs and stories. We are crazy about Amitabh Bachan and Rahat Fateh Ali Khan. Our TV serials echo the same stories to each other. Our women are the most beautiful in the world. We love to sing and dance and celebrate our families. We work hard and love whole- heartedly. Don’t let the demons of hatred devour us.

Open your eyes and see. We are one.

The dust of our lands has the same heavenly fragrance. The people want to live peacefully and want a good education for their kids. The world recognises us as peacemakers, awarding the Nobel Prize for Peace in 2014 jointly to Malala from Pakistan and Kailash from India. We share our passion for cricket and produce the best cricketers in the world. We share the same spices and laugh at the same things. We are home to the oldest Universities in the world. We are an ancient and wise civilization. Let us play music and cricket together, not war.

Open your eyes and see. We are one.

There is enough pain in the world already. Please don’t create more. Please don’t. Please. Wake up and hunt out the arsonists who light sparks and entertain themselves by  making destructive fires. Weed them out from the root and remember, that line which was drawn 71 years ago was artificial. Let’s keep it that way. Let’s not honour it any more with the blood of innocents. Don’t listen to war-mongers.

Let’s open our hearts and see. We are one.