Men and boys

International Men’s Day is designed to help more people consider what action we can all take to “Make A Difference” and “give men and boys better life chances” by addressing issues such as high suicide rates, sexual abuse and health.

I had no idea when this day was until yesterday morning, when I received 4 photographs from Aidan who lives in Malasia. He is one of Saagar’s close friends and he shared a house with him at Durham. His comment read “Delivering a Mental Health talk to Schlumberger in conjunction with International Men’s day.’

Invaluable, undying friendships.

Here’s another set of friends. Rene’s friends, who are racing across the Atlantic later this month in his memory – Race for Rene. They are raising a huge amount of awareness and funds for 2 charities: PAPYRUS and Child Bereavement UK. They say, “We lost Rene to mental health in 2017. We don’t want anyone else to have to feel what that’s like.” That is a vision worth having.

Here’s a conversation with James, one of Rene’s friends: https://www.youtube.com/watch?time_continue=4&v=Aerqfealiwk&feature=emb_title

Good luck to the crew. Here’s to all the men and boys we love:

Thanks for this Mary.

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.

Just beneath the skin

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Dissecting a human body is an enlightening experience. At 17, in the first year of medical school, it was a shock to enter the massive Anatomy hall with 12 metallic rectangular tables, each occupied by a horizontal naked human body covered with a white cotton sheet. 4 students in alphabetical order, to a table/ body. All different but more or less the same, students and bodies. Mine was a dark skinned, muscular young man in his thirties. I wondered how he had landed up on this table in the heart of Punjab when he clearly belonged somewhere else. I wondered what his story was.

The air was suffused with a stench of formaline. It flew through the roof of my nose straight into the recesses of my gray matter to form unerasable maps. It stung the eyes so hard, they wept. I never thought it was possible to get used to that repugnant odour but by the end of the first week, it was a ‘normal’ part of me.

‘Upper limb and breast’ was the first Lesson. Anterior, posterior, medial, dorsal, ventral lateral, proximal, distal were some of the new words added to my word bank. When I took the scalpel to my man’s skin, I flinched. It was an invasion. A sacrifice. An offering. A permission. I wanted to apologise to him and thank him. As I carefully peeled the first layer off, a pale yellow silky layer unravelled itself. I peeked at the next table and it was the same. And the next and the next. Men and women, old and young, squat and fit, brown and black. Whatever on the outside, were the same just underneath. The other thing they had in common was that they were all dead.

It’s the same with us. Whatever we are on the outside, we’re the same just underneath. We cry the same salty tears, we feel the same love for our kids, we yawn and sneeze and hiccup and breath the same way. We all are distinct and yet, more or less the same. Our innermost desire is only to be loved and understood. And one day we will all be dead.

At present, with the identity politics at its peak, my kind, gentle and fairness-loving husband is made to belong to only one box, that of a straight middle-aged white man. Yet, he is so much more than that. Just as black people are so much more than just black and homosexuals are so much more than just that. And Saagar was so much more than just a brown young man.

Underneath all that they all are just human. We have the privilege of living on the most gorgeous planet. Our numbers are higher than ever before and our potential as a race is the highest it has ever been. Yet, we cannot find one suitable host for the Oscars Award ceremony. Because we have paralysed ourselves. We cannot allow people the smallest past or future mistakes and mis-judgements. The amount of energy spent on getting offended or apologising for mistakenly causing offence is frightfully high.

At a time when we need more cohesion between humans than ever before, we are building divisions all over the world – us and them. Be it ‘the wall’ in America or Brexit or Islamophobia. We need bridges, not walls. We need to see ourselves in others – vulnerable and tough at the same time.

Can we make an effort to find the sameness between us? I may be a hippie and you a hipster but we are not that different. Let’s talk.

Help? Me?

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“Call for help” is the first step in Basic Life Support. At the hospital, I encourage Junior doctors to recognise early when a patient is too complex or too sick and ask for help at an early, rather than late stage.

It took six sessions of counselling to wake me up with a jolt to the fact that I needed to ask for help. Yes. I was a strong and independent woman. Yes. Very self-sufficient. Omnipotent, in my view. I offered help generously but hesitated to ask. Saagar was ill. I was looking after him the best I could while working full time. All our family was in India.  Saagar’s dad stepped in as much as he could. He worked full time too. We had no back-up. No support net-work. No community. We were muddling along till it dawned on me after 6 weekly Talking Therapy sessions of one hour each, that I could and should ask my family for help even though they were thousands of miles away.

I didn’t know it then, but it would seem I didn’t like asking for help. It made me feel weak, vulnerable and inadequate. Exposed. I don’t know why but it seemed like an admission of failure to manage my affairs. But now, Saagar was ill and we needed help.

On the night of the last session of therapy, I wrote an e-mail to all the adults on my side of the family, explaining our situation and finally, asking them for help.

One of my brothers responded. He applied for his UK Visa at once. A few days later he was told there weren’t enough blank pages in his Passport for the Visa to be stamped. He took the document back to the Passport office to get more blank pages added on. That took a few days. He then re-applied for his UK visa and finally got it a further few days later. By now 2 more weeks had passed.

In the mean time I arranged with one of my young friends, Jan to come to stay with us. Jan and his mum attended meditation lessons with me. Jan was a compassionate and enthusiastic young man who had recently lost his job and was looking for something meaningful to do. I offered him our guest room and invited him to stay with us, explaining the situation. He was excited about it. I asked Saagar how he felt about this temporary arrangement.

“It’s okay Mamma. I’ll wait for Uncle to come.”

I listened. I understood. I was tempted to push it. But I wanted to respect Saagar’s wishes. I didn’t want to take away the little control over his life that he had left.

A few days later, the visa arrived. Just in time for Saagar’s uncle to attend his funeral.

Moral of the story: Ask for help openly and EARLY.
Reminder: It takes a village …

Song: Lean on me:

https: //www.youtube.com/watch?v=qTVEIOOBD6Q

My name is Saagar.

S A A G A R.

In Delhi, it was simple and sweet. In Belfast, it had to be spoken out slowly and spelt out clearly. Still, it was utterred in all kinds of ways- Segaar, Sags, Sagsy-Wagsy, Saga, Cigar etc. It is, after all, a proper noun. I would think forgivingly, “As long as you speak his name with love, you can say it any which way you like.”

At about 7 years of age, Saagar came home from school one day and casually, asked “Can’t I be called Aran or something?” I felt for him but laughed. What else could I do? I asked him if anyone had commented on his name at school that day. “I have to tell them at least twice and then spell it out and they still get it wrong.”

I told him the story of his name. I was 24 when I got married. My in-laws lived In Chennai. We visited them a few months later and one evening we all went to a place called Besant Nagar beach. That was the first time I saw the ocean. The vision of a dark blue shimmer below meeting a pale blue glow above in a clean, delicate, straight line made everything else disappear. Its calm, its rhythm, its enormity, its subtle dance, its grace and openness pulled me in. All people and conversation faded away and there I was, completely soaked in the bliss of the ocean. My soul soothed. My body relaxed. My eyes quenched. I was in love. In that moment, I knew that if I ever had a son, he would be called, ‘Ocean’ ie. Saagar.  I told him he was named Saagar because his heart was as large and as beautiful as the ocean. He smiled and hugged me tight.

Saagar and I needed more stories. They could give us a sense of connection with the characters and each other. Feel their excitement and face their challenges.  Make us less alone. Create pictures we could step into as characters. They could show us a map of how to get from here to there. Of how to live in this world. They could make us more human, creating boundaries and arenas within which we could shine. They could make things seem less endless and random. They could take us places we didn’t know we wanted to go. We needed more shared stories.

 

No more; no less.

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It occurred to Pooh 🐻 and Piglet 🐷 that they hadn’t heard from Eeyore for several days, so they put on their hats 🎩 and coats 🧥 and trotted across the Hundred Acre Wood🌲 to Eeyore’s stick house. Inside the house was Eeyore.

“Hello Eeyore,” said Pooh.

“Hello Pooh. 🐻 Hello Piglet 🐷” said Eeyore, in a Glum Sounding Voice

“We just thought we’d check in on you,” said Piglet, “because we hadn’t heard from you, and so we wanted to know if you were okay.”

Eeyore was silent for a moment. “Am I okay?” he asked, eventually. “Well, I don’t know, to be honest. Are any of us really okay? That’s what I ask myself. All I can tell you, Pooh and Piglet, is that right now I feel really rather Sad, and Alone, and Not Much Fun To Be Around At All.

Which is why I haven’t bothered you. Because you wouldn’t want to waste your time hanging out with someone who is Sad, and Alone, and Not Much Fun To Be Around At All, would you now.”

Pooh looked and Piglet, and Piglet looked at Pooh, and they both sat down, one on either side of Eeyore in his stick house.

Eeyore looked at them in surprise. “What are you doing?”

“We’re sitting here with you,” said Pooh, “because we are your friends. And true friends don’t care if someone is feeling Sad, or Alone, or Not Much Fun To Be Around At All. True friends are there for you anyway. And so here we are.” 💜💚

“Oh,” said Eeyore. “Oh.” And the three of them sat there in silence, and while Pooh and Piglet said nothing at all; somehow, almost imperceptibly, Eeyore started to feel a very tiny little bit better. 🥰

Because Pooh and Piglet were There.
No more; no less.

A.A.Milne
E.H.Shepard