Every day since Saagar’s death, I looked for him in my face when I looked in the mirror. I searched hard. I desperately wanted to see him. Just a hint of him. But, no. Nothing showed up. Absolutely nothing.
Last night, I hunted again and I am definite I found a hue of him in the black and golden flecks on the irises of my eyes. Just a shimmer, only visible when light fell at a particular angle. Fleeting but present. The golden flecks weren’t as bright as his. They were somewhat faded but they were certainly there. And they were his.
I smiled. Yes. He was right here. In my eyes.
Every week day morning and every week day evening, I walk to and from the same railway station where it happened. As I walk to the station, I walk his last walk. As I walk home, I walk the path he didn’t. I send him my love and blessings at every step. He is in my mornings and evenings and in everything in between.
A new Blackbird Bakery kiosk has recently opened on Platform 1 at West Norwood station. The staff are friendly and coffee fabulous. I wish it had been there then. It makes it a happier place. I am glad it’s there now.
He loved the company of older boys. The younger ones annoyed him. His favourite thing as a toddler was to stand in super-big shoes belonging to the older men in the family. He waded around the house in them. He happily posed for the camera with a toothy grin, looking up with his twinkling eyes.
He couldn’t wait to grow up. As a 5 year old, he would sit studiously at the dining table and squiggle pages of nonsense words on a writing pad, claiming seriously, ”I am doing office work.”
About a year later, one Sunday I was on call. We were driving to his child-minder’s house at 7 am. There was no traffic at all. All of Belfast was asleep. I said to him, “Look Saagar, it’s so unfair. Everyone is resting today and I have to go to work.” After a moment’s thought he said, “But Mamma, you’re a good girl.”
One summer evening, he had been playing outside with his friends for a couple of hours. We lived in the hospital accommodation which was a block of 6 flats surrounded by green grounds and tall trees, a safe distance away from the road. At dinner time, he said he wasn’t hungry as he had had snacks at one of the neighbours. I had prepared dinner and had been waiting to have it with him. I tried to coax him to eat just a little bit. But he didn’t want to. I persisted with my efforts, making up stuff like, he would get bad dreams if he didn’t have a proper meal before bed. After a while he sat me down and said, “Mamma, when you are not hungry, do I force you to eat?”
It was like being on a film set at the Okotoks Pro Rodeo Competition in Calgary, Canada, yesterday.
Hamburgers and pierogis (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Pierogi) for lunch. Cowboy hats and boots. Broad leather belts with huge shiny metallic buckles, checked shirts and jeans all around. A swagger in their gait and a palpable pride in their country life, closely interwoven with that of their animals.
The youngest contestants were no more than 5 years old. Their event was sheep riding (mutton busting). Little boys and girls emerged from the shoot with their little helmets on, hanging on to the sheep coat with all they have, like little monkeys. Within seconds they tumbled off, on to the soft earth. Some dragged on, holding on to the running sheep for a few seconds longer. The rodeo-clown, with an orange shirt with white polka dots gave them all a high-five and got the audience to give each of them a big round of applause. One couldn’t help but admire their bravado.
The bareback riding was shocking to watch live and up close. The core muscles of the riders must be as strong as a slab of cement, their spines, rods of steel and their constitution unshakable. Other events of the day were saddle-bronc, calf tie-down roping, steer wrestling, bull riding, wild pony racing and barrel racing – things I didn’t know existed. The synchronicity between man and beast on full display. Being celebrated and honoured. A strong community with no pretensions or misapprehensions.
This morning I found a non-electric water-boiling kettle in the kitchen. I filled up just enough water for 2 cups of tea and placed it on the electric hob. It took its own sweet time to come to a boil. Such a refreshing change from the pace of life in London. I had time and space to appreciate the blue of the sky, the rustle of the wind, the song of the birds and the longing in my heart that flows through every cell of my body, every second of every day and yet I smile and enjoy this ‘here and now’.
Brindisa, a Spanish Tapas Bar sits at one corner of Borough Market. I sit at the window at one corner of Brindisa, sipping hot chocolate after a long day at work. A wee treat. It’s raining just short of cats and dogs. Umbrellas are out in all their colours and varying degrees of wind-induced angular crookedness. Hoods are up and hair flying off scalps at funky angles. Some walk hunched and shrunk, others wear big smiles, facing the sky. Many pairs of crisp city shoes step off the kerb and dunk straight into puddles. Squelch. Squelch. Squelch.
The last few weeks of writing less traverse my mind. In the first week, that vacant hour seemed contrived – like a designer hole in the evening. I strapped myself in a brace of immobility, letting it pass, pretending I wasn’t watching. On a couple of occasions I was desperate enough to turn to the TV for help. It felt unnatural and abrupt to break the rhythm of writing every day. I had a non-writer’s block. I knew it was coming but it was more unwelcome than I thought it would be. It made me feel like I was being denied the sweets I loved. I felt redundant. I thought of Saagar and missed him more than normal, if that’s possible.
The second week was a week of late nights – emergency surgeries at work, friends visiting from abroad, reading an ‘unputdownable’ book. Sleep and energy deficit was huge. There was no time to think or write. An e-mail came as a reminder that the last of 36 instalments towards the payment for my bike had been made. Yes. I got it in July that year. Saagar helped me with setting the height of the seat, inflating the tyres and oiling the chain. He worried about me cycling on London roads. He was an avid cyclist. Once a female driver of a car nearly hit him because she was on her mobile phone. She apologised to him. He used to answer my phone when I drove. He also used to answer my text messages. He felt strongly about mobile phone use by drivers. He hated that we lived on a hill. The last bit of the bike ride home was hard for him, as it is for me but I am getting used to it. One e-mail and a barrage of memories!
The third week was quiet. Cats. Music. Food. Candles adorning Saagar’s picture. Time to record a podcast with an eminent Consultant Psychiatrist, Dr Dele Olajide. Lots of cycling. Sleeping. Si and I pottering around the kitchen. I wash the spinach and he wilts it. He clears up the sink, I put the dishes away. Si boils the kettle, I prepare the mint for the tea. We dance our culinary waltz and Milkshake sits as a spectator on the upper stall of the kitchen island. In the pauses between ‘doings’ we dance. We rejoice, we dance, we create new memories.
When I was 9, a music teacher came home every Tuesday evening to teach me singing and Kathak dance. That was my favourite time of the week. One week I waited and waited for what seemed like a very long time but he did not come. That evening I had a very high fever and had to be taken to the doctor. Last week I have been having a high temperature, a cough and a cold. Withdrawal?
‘Growing up in the UK’, a report published by the BMA in 2013 found that we fail many children and young people every year. 2.6 million children in the UK live in absolute poverty. Children are at higher risk of living in both relative and absolute low income than the overall UK population. 14% of the most severely materially deprived kids from 30 EU countries live in the UK – same percentage as Romania. The severe economic hardship from the 2008 financial crisis in the UK and consequent spending cuts have been disproportionately detrimental to children, young people and low income families, particularly those who were already at a disadvantage such as migrant children and lone parent families.
‘We like to think of ourselves as a child-friendly society, but the facts do not support that comfortable, complacent assumption’ – James Appleyard, treasurer of the BMA.
Nelson Mandela said: ‘There can be no keener revelation of a society’s soul than the way in which it treats its children.’
According to the World Happiness Report 2013, Dutch kids are some of the happiest in the world. Here are a few possible reasons. Dutch parents are the happiest people. Dutch Mums have found the perfect work-life balance with 68% of them working part time, 25 hours per week or less. They don’t care so much about being charming or about how they look. Dutch dads are more hands on and play a large role in child care. Many of them also work part time. Dutch kids feel no pressure to excel at school. They have no homework before the age of 10. There is no competitive university application process. They can simply attend school for learning rather than competing in academic performance.
The Dutch breakfast mostly consists of a slice of white bread with butter and chocolate sprinkles on top. The United Nations called it healthy. What makes it ‘healthy’ is that breakfast is taken as a family every morning. The kids have a right to express their opinions as they are meant to not just be seen but also heard. Grandmothers have an active role in bringing up the grandkids and that has a huge positive impact on the kid’s self-esteem. The Dutch government gives money to families to help with expenses. People, including kids safely cycle everywhere. A huge emphasis is placed on ‘gezellighied’, a concept of pleasant togetherness that is more bracing than coziness and more exciting than contentment. ‘Gezellighied’ is an untranslatable Dutch word. Its closest meanings are convivial, sociable, fun, nice atmosphere resulting from general togetherness of people giving rise to a strong sense of belonging and a warm feeling. People work hard to bring this into their everyday family lives.
Why do we fail so many kids in our country?
Politicians make blunders because they surround themselves with like-minded people who are completely disconnected from the general populace. There is a failure in advocacy for children. As a society we need to examine and change our attitudes towards the importance of children. Mentally and socially some people manifest a bunker and silo attitude leading to isolation and exclusion. We need to create nurturing communities locally which could be based around the arts, music, exercise, spirituality, sports, play groups and after-school clubs.
Families, government and education policies and practices need to emphasise the importance of creating nurturing environments for kids.
Today my friend and her fiancé tied the knot. 2 individuals and families came together and entwined their love and destinies forever. The sun and the flowers smiled as they poured out blessings. The fragrance of jasmine flooded the air as the pretty little white flowers adorned the hair of most women present. Chanting of Sanskrit verses in a rhythmic baritone meter sanctified the atmosphere. The fire at the centre of the auspicious ceremony bore witness.
The sights, sounds and smells conjured up images from the past. The food and music. The silk and gold. The gifts and festivities. The smiles and promises. The coconuts and beetle-nuts. The salutations and offerings to deities. The hopes and dreams of lifelong friendship, companionship, health, happiness and prosperity. Mischievous traditions of the bride’s friends hiding the bride-groom’s shoes and little competitions between the bride and groom. A reminder of times and people gone by.
In the last 2 years and 9 months I have turned down three wedding invitations. Couldn’t face the thought. Today was the first. It was good.
The last wedding Saagar and I attended was in September 2012. We drove to a small village near Brighton on a very wet day. Our Tom-tom took us to the middle of a field and declared, ‘You have reached your destination’ . We had to laugh. We drove up to the nearest set of houses, knocking on doors of complete strangers to find out more. We finally got there. It was great!
“If you had a carpet bag and an umbrella you could be mistaken for Mary Poppins” one of my colleagues commented as he stopped his car right next to me at a red signal while I waited there on my bike. I often wear a tunic dress with leather shoes to work. I enjoy watching other cyclists in their multi-coloured and multi-logoed breathable jerseys, elasticated and padded cycling shorts, grippy mitts, electric yellow socks, clickity-clop shoes, snazzy sporty eye-wear and fancy headgear. Most of them are very serious.
My cycle belongs to the category of ‘hybrid’. It’s black and silver. It’s heavy compared to some of the feather-weights on the road. The special thing about it is that it is wholly unremarkable. Saagar used to call it ‘old lady bike’. Its first name is Strawberry and second name, Hill.
Space on roads is negotiated between cyclists, motorists and pedestrians. Cyclists move in packs and sometimes have disagreements amongst themselves. It’s clear from the behaviour of a cyclist if he/she has ever been behind a wheel. Likewise, it is easy to say if a driver is cyclist-aware. Pedestrians are a law unto themselves.
Within 3 turns of my wheels as I start off from a red signal, at least 10 bikes go past me. It’s another matter that a hundred yards hence we find ourselves waiting at the next set of lights. Some attempt to squeeze through the narrowest crevice in the traffic. Being stuck behind a bus is a special treat in terms of the quality of air. Smoking is mandatory.
The morning ride to work is a dream – fresh air, fresh me, very few people out and about, the wind behind me and the way mostly flat or downhill. In the evening – smoky air, tired me, lots and lots of people, riding into the breeze on a steady uphill road. Both, leisure times. Excuses to be a child again. As my quads toil hard to get me home inch by inch, I visualise the tub of Green and Black’s Dark Chocolate ice-cream waiting for me in the freezer. It helps with the speed and puts a song in my heart.