No shame. Just love.

Last week I met Matt. A young man, calmly determined to share his story and open up a rainbow that would envelop the world and knit it closer together. A story of a glorious love, a damning shame and a tragic unnecessary death.

Matt and Naz met in Birmingham in the year 2000 and instantly fell in love. Matt Ogston and Dr Nazim Mahmood. Both men. Men in love. They tried having a relationship in that city but knew that if they wanted to live like normal people doing normal things, they’d have to move away. So, they did. Over the next 13 years they built and lived a fulfilled and happy life together in London. All this time they managed to hide their gayness from Naz’s family as it was guaranteed to create unhappiness.

One weekend Naz needed to go back to Birmingham for a family event. The question of his sexuality came up and he spoke the truth. As expected, his family reacted badly. He was told that he was living in ‘sin’ and his ‘condition’ was treatable. I cannot imagine how he must have felt. Deeply humiliated I guess. That day he must have known that now, he could never be the man he was born to be. His love for his fiancé would always be seen as sin by others he deeply loved.

He returned to London. To Matt. Two days later he ended his life.

In his utter devastation, Matt found the determination to do what he could, to stop religion from getting in the way of love. He set up the Naz and Matt Foundation.

“Our mission is to never let religion, any religion, come in the way of the unconditional love between parents and their children.”

Methuselah

One morning, despite severe inertia and amplified gravity, I carried my body through treacle to a yoga lesson nearby. Once I got there, the music, the incense, the light, the chanting, the breathing and the presence of other people lightened me up and I got into the groove.

I became the rhythm of my breath and the simultaneous harmonious dance of the body with the breath. Each posture pushed me just a little bit outside my comfort zone and the energy started to shift and flow. Before I knew it one hour was up. As we were finishing off the session with a short meditation, Felix, the teacher said “Dedicate your practice to someone you love.”

In that moment, tears sprung out in rivers. Out of nowhere, all on their own accord, they flooded me. I lay in the corpse pose (shavasana) and the warmth of my tears continued to soak the hair at both my temples.

Just then a set of 4 light soft paws, one by one stepped on to my tummy. I am familiar with the weight and size of such paws due to our feline, Milkshake’s nightly visits. Instantly, I broke into a smile. I lifted my head and opened one eye. A black cat that had been lazing on a sofa previously had made itself comfortable on top of me, rolled up into a ball. The fuzzy warmth of that circle travelled all the way to my heart. I sat up and cuddled it, stroked it and thanked it for reaching out to me. It was gracious enough to let me. Love was boomeranging.

Constantine Bay

The entire coastline covered in Sea Pinks, bunched together in shapes resembling piglets. They could easily be called Sea Pigs. Poor soil – no problem. Lashing winds – no problem. Salt laden air and water – lovely! These little pink flowers are hardy as hell. Unperishable. Their leaves stay green all year round – sun or rain.

A week in Cornwall, the perfect escape from the Big Smoke.

From the white sands, rock pools and sand dunes of the bay, we could see a classic white light-house standing tall. A beacon of hope for hundreds of years for hundreds of people, lost at sea.

Lovely long walks along the headlands, fresh sea-breeze and delicious sea food. And, lots of exceptional cream-teas- especially the one at Bedruthan steps. Wowwie!!! It was indeed, like a dream. Our Scrabble travelled with us. In London we don’t get time to play it. So, here was our chance.

After dinner on Wednesday, I opened the green cardboard box. We were with friends who were half willing to play. We agreed to form 2 teams of two each so we would be able to consult and won’t have to wait too long between goes. As I unpacked the box, I found some old score sheets in there. They had 2 columns of scores – one for Saagar and one for me.

My heart lurched up to my throat and my eyes stung and burnt. I took a deep breath, closed my eyes and smoothened out the contortions of my face. I didn’t want to spoil the evening for everyone. A good game is had by all and we are off to bed by 11 pm.

“I am in a strange building in a strange sandy seaside town. I am wearing strange flowing green garments. Someone says three people are waiting to see me outside. After a while I walk out to see these people. 3 young men are seated on comfy cane sofas in a shaded balcony. As I walk towards them, one pair of eyes glints back at me bathed in recognition. A knowing smile flashes across his handsome olive face.

I freeze and stare. His hair has grown. He has blonde highlights, like he did when he was 15. He is wearing a big tan jacket and looking so good! He stands up and steps gently toward me. I look at him is disbelief. He holds me in his trademark big bear hug.

“You know how much I’ve cried.” I whisper.

“I know.” He whispers in his sweet young-man voice.

I hang on to him, never to let him go.”

Then the flood gates of my conscience are flung open and once again I am staring at a gaping hole. Another day … love … longing … The sea pinks … endure. The light house … hope …

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

Screen Shot 2019-04-27 at 18.48.41

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.