A missed opportunity.

Never have I had so much time and predictability. Days have been rolling at a soft rhythm. This whole drama started nearly a year ago. What have I done with the advantages I’ve had? What do I have to show for it?

Nothing.

People have started new businesses, done a whole lot of voluntary work, written books, got fit, learnt to knit and sew and cook and all that jazz. I am just the same as I was at the start. Still subconsciously judging me based on my productivity. Old habits, like patterns that repeat themselves on an unending roll of synthetic fabric in a psychedelic print. I must admit there is a strange kind of gratification in that. Self-flagellation is a modern virtue.

One lesson we can learn from a dog – it never tries to be a better dog. It is fully accepting of itself. It has no concept of ‘self-improvement’ or ‘achievement’. It’s free of the notions of ‘self’. You might want it to be a better dog but as far as that sweet creature is concerned, it is purely its unadulterated self.

The world was given an opportunity to unite and it managed to cut itself up into even smaller bits – the ones who wear masks everywhere and the ones who don’t, the ones who think that vaccine is God and the others who don’t, the ones who drive beyond 5 kilo-meters and the ones who won’t, the ones who use public transport and the ones who don’t, the ones that can’t wait for the lock-down to end and others who can’t bear the thought of it ending. One side trying desperately to convert the other. The rich got richer and the poor got poorer. People went as far as snitching on their neighbours – all in the name of a greater good. Not really for themselves but for other people.

The list of criminal offences has more than doubled in this time while basic human rights have been trampled upon or willingly surrendered. Who would’ve thought that leaving one’s house more than once a day could be classed as a ‘criminal act’?

I suppose I can congratulate myself for staying out of prison for one whole year.

Felicitations dear World. You have just given birth to a baby religion.

It changes. And changes again.

Over and over I asked myself – Now what? Now what? What happens after a severance such as this? How long do one’s bones bleed? Do the tears ever finish? What does ‘recovery’ look like? Is it even possible? How does one keep placing one foot in front of the other? Where is the road? Where does it come from? Where does it go? How long and meandering is it? When does the screaming in my head stop? How long can I keep up the facade? Pretend to be sane? Is this what a new diagnosis of a terminal illness feels like? Is forgiveness possible? Self-forgiveness? Acceptance? Surrender? All these big words! Surrender what? To whom? Who am I now? What do I do?

No answers. Silence. The tilted earth keeps spinning around its imaginary axis. It keeps cradling me. The sun stays at the center of its orbit. My son stays at the center of my being. My breath keeps coming and going. I grow new eyes. My bones carry my weight even though they bleed. The road appears under my feet. It reveals itself one step at a time. Rumi and Khalil Gibran come and hold my hand. The screaming softens. The wall of bricks that was my body, loosens. I come to know the terror and the joy of being insane, catch glimpses of being free. Respect for those who went before and sadly others, who follow. I stop fighting with the big words and keep it simple. Watch. Observe. See. Open. Let the gash in my heart, allow the light in.

A recent talk for The Compassionate Friends, a charity dedicated to supporting bereaved families.

Less than 3

Si was flummoxed by the ‘<3’ sign appearing repeatedly in the chat box on a zoom call with friends. Sometimes all by itself, without context, without a before or after. It took him a while to realise what it was. I suppose you know already. Don’t you?

“Love thy neighbour as thyself” implies that respect for one’s own uniqueness and integrity is inseparable from the understanding of anothers. Yet, it is widely believed that it is virtuous to love others. But to offer that same love to yourself is somewhat indulgent. In fact, this misconception goes as far as to say that the degree to which I love myself, I do not love others. Self-love is commonly understood to be synonymous with selfishness or narcissism. The French theologian, John Calvin speaks of self-love as ‘a pest’. Self-love bad, hence, unselfishness good.

Selfishness and self-love are opposites. When selfish, one is incapable of loving others and incapable of loving oneself.  

Only recently have I come to know this to be the truth – I am deserving of my love. In fact, I cannot fully love and respect another, until I love and respect myself a hundred percent. I don’t need to buy expensive gifts for me to experience it. Sitting quietly with myself is an act of love. It does not need evidence. It is free of all obligatory burdens. It is freedom itself.

On this day, I hope you can be your own Valentine. Happy Valentine’s day! Today and every day.  

 “If you love yourself, you love everybody else as you do yourself. As long as you love another person less than you love yourself, you will not really succeed in loving yourself, but if you love all alike, including yourself, you will love them as one person and that person is both God and man. Thus, he is a great and righteous person, who, loving himself, loves all others equally.”  

Being a Rose

Scent as soft as

feathers touching

the skin on the tip

of my nose.

Subtle. Almost invisible.

Gentle. Like a fine drizzle.

Smell? No.

Fragrance. The colour of orangey-peach petals.

A rose is nothing but non-rose.

It is the cloud that sent rain.

The sun. The soil. The seed.

The gardener’s sweat.

A conspiracy of the cosmos.

The rose

Cannot be herself alone.

It must inter-be.

With molecules of minerals and

Little particles of me.

All this, I touch

when my fingers hold

the tender stem.

I touch reality.

The non-self-ness of the rose.

Seeing real close-

A rose no longer rose.

A river no longer river.

A mountain no longer mountain.

We don’t know it yet.

(A government advertisement which has now been removed)

“We’d better finish in time today. I have tickets for Nitin Sawhney at the Southbank Centre this evening. Would be nice to grab a bite beforehand. Isn’t it Sod’s law that when you have plans, something is bound to crop up and stop you getting there?”

Once upon a time, we made plans. We co-ordinated and arranged a time and place to meet with friends. After work, we visited places, had conversations, chilled out at book shops browsing through poetry and fiction, we waved frantically as we spotted each other in crowds, across a sea of heads. We buzzed in the excitement of the bar and lounge in theatres before the show began. We pre-booked drinks for the interval. We patiently queued outside toilets. We unexpectedly ran into people we knew but didn’t expect to see. We leant into the ushers with our tickets, showing them the number and taking directions to our seats. We squeezed past people apologising as our handbags and knees gently bumped against each other. We quietly admired a dress or a pair of earrings here and the unmissable drama of a sparkling peacock-blue eye-shadow at the base of long brushy eye-lashes there. We hushed as the lights went down. We waited for the curtains to rise. We lost ourselves in the surreal sets, the crazy costumes, the transformative talent, the perfect precision, the heights of the high notes, the tangential takes. The sheer magic of it.

We came back, changed. Enriched. Enthralled. Expanded. Elevated.

That was a long time ago. They say ballet dancers are being encouraged to re-train in cyber-security, singers are venturing into soft furnishings and sound technicians now have the lucrative opportunity to be delivery drivers. Their jobs evaporated.

The pandemic and the response to it are killing people. What else is being killed? Can it be measured? How much of it is revivable? When?

Poverty and the Mind

Vikram Patel is a psychiatrist and a Professor of Global Health who works tirelessly to improve the mental health of people living in low and middle income countries like India and Ethiopia.

His recent research has found that all countries are ‘developing’ countries when you look at the low proportion of the health-budget they spend on mental health. Some wealthy countries may have better systems of care for maternal and child health but overall, mental health remains universally, at the end of the queue.

At present, COVID has overtaken all other agendas. However, now more than ever before, there is a recognition of the two-way relationship between poverty and mental ill-health. This may be a historic opportunity to get this right.

The relationship between poverty and mental ill-health is a complex one. How can we distinguish a normal response to poverty from a disease process? Poverty can increase the risk of poor mental health via multiple pathways, for example, poor physical health, high levels of noise pollution, violent neighbourhoods, insecurity and humiliation.

Can an increase in income improve mental health? Yes. It can but it needs to be sustained.

The fact that having a mental illness may induce poverty is less well recognised. It may affect one’s education and hence, employment opportunities. In low and medium income countries, health care is paid for by people. Due to the length of time it takes to find an effective treatment, much effort and money is wasted in doctor-shopping. Depression is inequitably distributed in society but not recognised as such because wealthy individuals also get it. We accept that long term expensive therapies cannot be delivered to the poor, so what’s the point in studying them?

After nearly a year of job-losses, the number of people below the bread-line all over the world will increase by tens of millions. In India alone, the gains made in economic growth over the last decade are predicted to be wiped out this year. The historically disadvantaged will fare worse, suffer more.

We can expect a surge in mental health problems like we did after the 2008 global financial crisis, mainly led by suicide and drug misuse. Sir Angus S Deaton, a Nobel prize winning economist wrote extensively about these deaths of despair. Economists and global health experts warn that this one will possibly be far worse.

In India, while the state is spending all its energies on the pandemic, livelihood-based organisations are finding very poor mental health in their members. Taking a broad, multidisciplinary approach to depression and anxiety rather than viewing it through the lens of a medical specialty is the need of the hour. Policies all over the world need to de-medicalise the emphasis on specialists and empower front-line providers and communities to enable them to foresee, identify and address this problem.

The bi-directional relationship between mental health and finances means that appropriate mental health interventions can improve finances. Can we persuade policy-makers world-wide to listen to global health experts and economists, look at this fast-approaching  avalanche and steer policies to protect those who are being and will be hit by it?

Talk: Poverty and Depression (https://voxdev.org/topic/health-education/poverty-and-depression-how-improving-mental-health-can-help-economic-wellbeing) – this talk was available till last night but has since disappeared.

Research Papers:

  1. Angus Deaton on the Financial crisis and the well-being of Americans (June 2011):

https://www.nber.org/papers/w17128

2. Vikram Patel on Causal evidence and mechanisms of Poverty, Depression and Anxiety (May 2020):

https://www.nber.org/papers/w27157

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.

Catriarchy

His dad was Russian royalty. Since the age of six weeks he could tell the difference between gourmet and ordinary meals, silk and cotton stoles, real and fake woolen throws, synthetic and down duvets, the warmth emanating from humans and radiators. He could tell if he had the full attention of his staff or not. He still can. He knows how to get them to do what he wants without saying a word, be it opening the door for him or being stroked at the back of his neck.

For entertainment, for a short while the laser pen was fun but very soon he let us, his staff, know it was cheap and silly. He wants action, involving blood and gore. He’s out hunting, bringing home trophies of half-dead mice, baby sparrows and often a big gash somewhere on his body.

He knows he’s good-looking. His James Bond swagger gets exaggerated when he knows he’s being watched. He sits like a statue when he’s being talked about but his upright ears change direction like a satellite dish. If he’s in the mood he humours our affections but prefers that we stick with our duties.

I do believe that he needs to check his cat-privilege. For centuries, cats have pretended to be domesticated while all the time exploiting humans. It’s about time we, as humans did something about it. I am in the process of designing an ‘unconscious bais’ training for him while at the same time preparing myself to be royally ignored. He has a clear preference for male company. It has been communicated to me in no uncertain terms that I am ‘extra’.

Named and reared by one of the finest specimens of the human species, he is a Maharaja of the Kingdom of Two. We celebrate his majesty, Mr Milkshake, paws, claws, whiskers and all. And his surrogate mum, Saagar today and every day.

Happy Christmas. xxx

“What?”
Summer 2013

The Season of Giving

In July, looking for inspiration to think and write beautifully, I spent an hour on 3 consecutive Sundays listening to David Whyte, a wise and warm poet of English/ Irish origin who speaks and writes, seemingly from his spirit. I thought he was some kind of a magician as I felt mesmerized, awakened and soothed by his presence and his words.

He described the simple involuntary act of breathing as a life-sustaining exchange for the planet – inhaling is receiving and exhaling is giving. Generosity and gratitude – reciprocity in every moment. Last Sunday he spoke on the seasonal subject of ‘giving’ and I can’t help but share the synopsis of his talk in his own words here.

  1. The foundational understanding that giving is not just a logistical act of transferring something from one person to another, but an art form to be practiced. Like all art forms, practicing it takes time and spaciousness and the ability to create a relationship with the unknown, the invisible and the unspoken.
  1. To learn to give is often the simple, heart-breaking act of giving again.
  1. Giving is an essence of relationship. To stop giving is often to call an end to relationship.
  2. Giving asks us to have a close relationship with both time and timelessness. All gifts change with the maturation of both the giver and the receiver.
  1. Giving is an imaginative journey into another’s life with all the implications accompanying that journey.
  1. Giving can be a form of blessing, a way of empowering another life. The blessing is made through giving what a person does not even know they need themselves.
  1. Giving, in the words of Shakespeare, is ‘Twice Blessed’. Through exploring the edges of our own generosity, we come to understand where we have trouble receiving ourselves; and this teaches us to ask for what we ourselves might not feel we deserve. In the enriched relationship, giving becomes a reciprocal harvest where giver and receiver are not so easily distinguished.

(PS: On 3 Sundays in January 2021, he speaks about resolutions for new beginnings. Recordings and written resources available if you are able/unable to attend the live event)

The Golden Buddha

Once upon a time, far in the east, there was a country called Sayam. In the capital of this country there was an ancient temple of the Golden Buddha. People made long pilgrimages to visit this temple. Everyone knew of it and wanted to see the massive golden statue of the beautiful Buddha within.

One day the news came that a fierce foreign army was approaching the capital. The monks and devotees got together and quickly covered the statue from head to toe in mud and dirt. They made it look ordinary, with every bit of gold out of sight. It now looked dull and drab with no sparkle at all. It even gave out a peculiar odour that had to be camouflaged with incense.

Yes. The army made a huge clang as it arrived in the city with tonnes of ammunition and aggression, looking to plunder anything of value. A platoon of soldiers with armour and swords rode into the temple and looked around like hungry dogs. They found nothing of interest. Just an old dirty statue. They rode out and away.

Over time, new monks and devotees arrived. The old ones forgot to take the mud and dirt off. They forgot to tell the new ones about it. For years and years the Golden Buddha remained in hiding until one day, a young monk was deep in meditation a few feet away from it when he heard a crashing noise. His eyes opened and he saw that a bit of the mud had cracked and fallen off. Smashhhhh…onto the floor. He saw the left hand of the statue glinting in the dim evening light. He walked up to the statue and took a closer look. With eyes as wide as coins he ran out to get the others to see what he had seen. All of them got to work and took the mud shell down to reveal the awesome, pristine Golden Buddha.

This parable reminds us that we are all born pure and all-knowing, one with the divine. Over time we get conditioned to wear the shells or labels of ‘man’ or ‘rich’ or ‘silly’ or ‘mother’ or ‘short’ or ‘engineer’ and so on. Until one day something comes along and cracks the casing, making the gold within visible. Then we can’t help but keep picking at the dirt as nothing else satisfies us. We keep peeling the layers of muck away bit by bit by bit, till it’s all done and we are free.