Where I live.

One or two years after Saagar, continuing to live here, in this house was painful. Everything screamed his name – the road from the station to our house that he did not take, our vet, our cat, our dentist, our GP Surgery and pharmacy, our local shops and cafés, our bins, his school, our neighbours, our radio and TV. Everything yelled out his absence.

The thought of moving away filled me with a terrible sense that I would be leaving him behind.  As long as I lived here, this would be his home. What if, one day he was to return? I should be here to receive him. I ironed his full-sleeved light brown t-shirt, a set of dark blue Super-dry sports trousers and kept them ready for use. His Vans shoes too, for that same reason. The boring, practical, Virgo, me. I couldn’t have gone anywhere.

Nearly eight years on, I have come to inhabit my body in a way that my home is where I am. I am comfortable here. Now he’s not separate from me. His home is inside my body once again. He lives in me as love. Divine love. It’s not possible for me to leave him behind ever. He goes everywhere with me, as my beating heart, my smile and my tears. We both share a home. His light shines through my eyes and his laughter rings through my chuckles. I can’t be without him no matter where I am. There is no insecurity. I am free and so is he.

Twenty-two years ago, I traveled from New Delhi to London with my eyes full of dreams and a suitcase full of books. Soon, I shall be crossing the oceans in the other direction, heading back with Si, with absolutely nothing to lose.

Bed number 19.

I never really left. I was always there. At home with my folks. Even when I flew across oceans, a part of me remained at home. The part that refused to leave. The rest of me has been homesick since that day.

The first time I was to leave my Motherland, India, twenty-three years ago, my dad noticed I was close to tears at the airport. He said, “Chin up my dear. Remember who you are and how proud we are of you.”

Two weeks back he had a routine surgery on his neck that has left him unable to breathe adequately for now. He has received all the support he needs in a timely and gentle manner. For a while he was sedated but when he came out of it, the first thing he verbalised on seeing my mum and I was ‘I love you.’

Two days back I left him again. This time in an Intensive Care Unit bed. Bed number 19. I left his doctors, my brothers, my mother and all the extended family in-charge of him and of each other. I left a list of plans, strategies and resources. I left not knowing what happens next. I left as I breathed and meditated and pleaded with the Gods to heal him.

Once again, I see the fragility of human life. I witness people and situations in a constant state of flux, the tide of hope rising and plunging, our uneven shallow breaths and his, our collective helplessness, the tentative stepping forward and standing back, the engagement of distant Healers, the comforting holding and massaging of hands, hours of sitting in air-conditioned rooms and waiting, second-guessing other’s needs, the tender wetting of lips and applying Vaseline, the daily mid-morning updates that set the tone for the day.

Walking purposefully through hospital corridors is something I’ve done a lot of. But this time it’s me who’s walking through them, lost and vacant.

After four weeks, we hope to return home for a longish time. The very thought makes my heart sing. May Mother Nature do its magical, mysterious dance – make things worse and then, make them better again.

Entrances and exits.

The two little lads were inseparable. Saagar and Rohan. They cycled together all evening after school and kicked a ball about for hours. They had dinner at each other’s houses. They created snowmen and played with snowballs together. They even shared a bath every now and then. Luckily, they lived right next to each other and their parents were friends.

At Ulster Hospital in East Belfast, the staff accommodation is a set of six flats. Rohan‘s family lived in the one just below us. His mum, Shruti, was the best grower of indoor plants. A gentle, sweet lady. She was also a doctor but at that time, was not working. Over time our families became close friends and continued to visit each other even after we moved to London and they moved to the north of England. If you ask me to name my oldest friends in the UK, Shruti’s name would be on top.

Eventually Shruti started working in Psychiatry and seemed to enjoy it, even though the exams were a struggle as they are for many of us, when they must fit somewhere in between work, kids, husbands, homes, pets, friends, sleep and homesickness.

When Saagar was diagnosed with Bipolar disorder, I needed to speak with her. I needed her. I asked her by text what time would suit. She said she’s call me after work and she did.

“Hi Shruti. Thanks so much for calling.”

‘No problem. I am driving so we may get cut off. I’ll call you back if that happens.’

As soon as I started speaking it got cut off and she called back and the same thing happened again. And again. And then she didn’t call back.

When Saagar died, she came to see us the very next day with her husband, utterly shocked.

A month later I needed to connect with her again. She said she’d call me back after work. She called while driving. She had to pick someone up from somewhere or drop someone off somewhere. She was on the move. On – Off – On – Off : our phones connected and then rudely disconnected mid-sentence and stayed disconnected for seven years.

Two days back a message arrived from Shruti on Whatsapp saying, “Please join us and bless the couple.” Rohan gets married soon. A nice little electronic invitation to the reception was posted underneath the message. The invitation wasn’t for anyone in particular. It had no names on it. I can’t be entirely sure it was for us.

I am happy for the family and for Rohan. Wishing them all possible happiness, I RSVP’d with apologies for being unable to attend. There’s nothing here and let’s not pretend there is. I felt sad for a little while at this loss of a valued friendship, but not for long. This is an opportunity to let go. Yet again. If there is one thing I want to be skilled at, it is to keep letting go, remembering what the Bard of Avon said – ‘All the world’s a stage, and all the men and women merely players: they have their exits and their entrances …’ I get it.

I would like to live

like a river flows

carried by the surprise

of its own unfolding.”                                    

John O’Donahue

Borrowed light

It sits on my shoulder like a monkey. Annoying. I’ve had a long day, I say. Go away.

It pulls my right ear and searches for lice scrambling all its fingertips over my scalp, irritating as hell. There are none. Get lost. I am not a child.

I’m losing it. The moon is winning.

Proud of its super-fullness. It is evil. The tides it excites, the fights it ignites, the way it bends minds, the resting foetuses it pulls into this cruel world, stealing sleep from the depths of the night. Milky and serene on the outside, within a serious trouble-maker resides. Hurricanes, tornados and earthquakes it invites.

You’re an imposter. I see you. A big black rough rock with nought to your name. No water. No gravity. No air. Certainly, no light. This thing you proclaim as your own is in fact not so. We all know. It belongs to the star called Sun. The one that gives life. Not you. That’s the real star. You, a mere appendage, borrowing importance, gloating in your pretend beauty, cycling and circling with poor intent.

You’re no good to me. Go away. You bad bad moon.

She.

(Pen Vogler by John Burke. BP portrait awards 2017)

With all her worldly wealth, she could not purchase belonging. Especially to herself. Her eyes thirsty for tenderness. Her muscles tense with want, her skin hungry for touch, her lips a straight line of dissatisfaction.

She hoped a painter might find her in his brush strokes and capture her on his canvas. She paid him a mountain, so he could help her find out who she might be … find out if she could like herself. After many hours of sitting still, with her hands clasped together in her lap, she was tired. She was tired of perfectly painting her fingernails bright red, for the painter. She couldn’t wait to see what he saw.

The day came and the painting was ready to be seen by her. Her eyes bulged out of her head, eager to find the joy she so wanted to find in herself. All she saw in the fore-ground, was a golden dress sitting beside a golden yellow lamp shade. All she saw in the back-ground, was dark brown walls and furniture. That was the gist of it. The thing she was dying to find was not there. It was yet to be born. Those clasped hands held the secret. She knew what she had to do – unlock the door with those lovely hands and leave … for some place, white, blue and green.

No words.

Two years back, it could not be screened as scheduled. After a long wait, last weekend it was, at Clapham Picture house where Saagar often went with his friends. People came from Leicester, Salford, Cornwall, Cardiff and Birmingham. Some, I had only ever seen on screen. Others, when they were school kids. They brought their sisters, spouses, friends and colleagues. They stayed for hours afterwards, talking about themselves in a way they never had. They fell in love with Saagar’s big brown eyes and mischievous smile. They saw what a treasure had been carelessly lost. Everyone felt something. Many had no words but there was a profusion of overdue hugs all around. Many felt they knew him even though they had never met him. Some introductions were made to link up the leaders from various sectors of society so they could form stronger and safer networks.

That woman in the film was not just me. She spoke for the fifteen families in the UK, who are plunged into this harsh reality every day. More than 6500 every year.

That young man in the film was not just Saagar, but everyone who has ever blamed themselves for their troubles and felt shame for things that have happened to them, hiding behind their beautiful smiles. Unseen. Unheard. Each one who lost their tribe and couldn’t find a way back.

These were not just Saagar’s friends, but all those who are left behind, trying to figure out how this could happen to someone they loved. Wondering what they could have done then and what they can do now.

This film laments a future lost. It mourns silent suffering. It also illuminates a path that appears out of darkness. It also celebrates love and smiles. It also gives us permission to soften, lighten, loosen. It breaks open our hearts so we can hear the unspoken pain that lies behind the mask of another face and our own. It makes us one.

This is what it means to be human. Here, on this beautiful Earth, there is no other. Only us. Not us and ‘them’. Just us.

PS: International film awards: Eight.

‘1000 days’ is made by Me and Thee films for educational purposes. Hence it is not yet freely available on social media. It was screened in the ‘Lived experience’ section at Middlesbrough, for the Hartlepool and Stockton Safeguarding children’s Partnership and South Tees Safeguarding Children’s Partnership Conference on the 12th of July. It made a profound impact on roughly 350 attendees, motivating them to make individual and collective change so as to protect young lives and their happiness. Will keep you posted on the opportunities to watch it. Thank you for your love and support. Please do share any constructive ideas/ thoughts you may have for the film in the comments section.

What do I do with this thing?

It churns inside me all the time. This thing does not settle. It does not sit still. It burns my tummy, wets my thirsty eyes, parches my tongue and pokes its elbow into the longing in my heart. It doesn’t rest and doesn’t allow me to rest. It kisses my forehead, only to kill me with its kindness. It stays with me, no matter where I go – to the park, to work, on a bike-ride, at my desk, in the kitchen. It seeps into my words. Into the movements of my hands. Into the mirror. Into the songs, I choose. Into tea and toast. There is no getting away from it. It pervades my silences and my sleep.

I wish it had never appeared but it has. It wish it wasn’t mine but it is. The problem is, it won’t leave me alone. Not for the briefest of moments. In a Stockholm Syndrome way, I hold on to it and defend it. How I wish it wouldn’t tear me up so mercilessly.

What do I do with this thing?

Once I heard a Therapeutic Writing Coach say: Name it. Claim it. Tame it. Re-frame it. Proclaim it.

‘Re-frame it’ stayed with me. It does not mean I tell myself false pacifying stories but encourages me to see it for what it is, beyond the drama. Grief, as love that has no place to go. Longing, as the other side of the coin of love.

If I don’t transform it, I will keep transmitting it and I don’t want to do that.

(Resource: Therapist and Writing for Well-being Coach

Nigel Gibbons : http://www.nigelgibbons.co.uk/About-Me.htm)

Meeting old friends for the first time.

Meeting old friends for the first time. In at least three dimensions. Sharing a physical space together, not just a bland rectangular screen. Actually holding hands.

“Gosh! You’re for real!”

The sparkling smiles of recognition mixed with disbelief. The hugs offering heart to heart resuscitation and healing. Sitting down side by side on the sofa, sharing stories, tea and cake.

A year ago, this could have been fiction but last weekend it was fact. While volunteering at a retreat for Bereaved parents hosted by The Compassionate Friends, we finally met people we’ve only ever seen on Zoom. It was held at the simple and serene Woodbrooke Centre, a Georgian manor house in Selly Oak, Birmingham with tall trees, beautiful flower beds and a family of geese perambulating the grounds, intermittently honking. It is a Quaker centre and has a poster in the main foyer which reads “Nameless helping the Nameless”.

The garden in front of the main house has a labyrinth mowed into it. Early on Saturday morning, birds were singing and the light was inviting me into the open. I decided to walk bare feet into the center of the labyrinth. I took my shoes and socks off at the edge of the circle. As soon as I started walking, it turned into an extremely mindful experience as the ground was littered with geese droppings.

The silence in that place was sweet and the views a treat. We talked about the importance of finding meaning. We shared the joys and challenges of taking the inward road. We watched a film and sang together. We wrote from our hearts and created pretty little candle holders for our kids from jam jars at the crafts table. We cried and laughed, reassured that in this company, it was completely acceptable to do both, sometimes simultaneously.

A pleasant exchange. Giving and receiving with compassion. Understanding. Belonging. Learning. Holding the utter magnificence of life in one hand and the absolute devastation in another. That’s what this game is all about, I guess.

… and your name is?

S A A G A R.

In Delhi, it was simple and sweet.
In Belfast, it was a problem. It had to be pronounced slowly with exaggerated lip movements and spelt out clearly. Still, it was uttered in all kinds of ways – Segaar, Sega, Saaga, Sags, Sagsy-wagsy. It is after all, a proper noun. “As long as you call him with love, you can call him anything.” I would say with a smile. But of course, it was his name. Not mine.

At the age of 7, one day he came home from school and said, “Can’t you change my name to Aran or something?” I felt for him but laughed. What else could I do? I asked him if something happened at school that day, if someone said something hurtful and he just picked up his soft grey elephant and cuddled it.

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 after the wedding and one evening we all visited a place called Besant Nagar beach. That was the first time my eyes fell upon the expansive ocean. On the map this water body had the boring label, Bay of Bengal. 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 conversation faded away and there I was, completely soaked in the bliss of the ocean. My soul soothed. My body relaxed. My eyes quenched. My heart happy. I was in love. In that moment, I knew that if we ever had a son, he would be called, ‘Ocean’: Saagar. I reminded him that his name was Saagar because his heart was as expansive and as beautiful as the ocean. He smiled and gave me a tight hug.

As he grew older, he came to own his name. He came to live it. The waters of this ocean ran deep. They appeared placid on the surface but strong currents ran underneath. All I saw was the steady flow of gentle waves, rhythmically lapping against the shore through the seasons. It oscillated with the moon but the high tide was never too high and the low tide was never too low, until one day it was.

Come home, my darling.

I still hear the key turning in the door from the outside and you stepping in. Can you believe it? I still see your face, darkened by the sun. Dressed in your cricket whites, you drag your massive cricket-bag-on-wheels behind you by your left arm.

“Did you take the sun-screen with you?” I ask.

“Yes, it’s in the bag.”

“Did you actually put it on?’

 “Mamma, I’m hungry.”

I still wait for you to join us for dinner. I cook the foods you like, especially on your birthday: spinach-paneer for mains, chocolate mousse for dessert. I wonder what you’d be doing in this realm if you were here. Job? Girl-friend? How silly! Isn’t it? I can’t help it. It’s involuntary. It’s got something to do with the heart. With longing. With missing. With love. It’s not supposed to make sense. You would have had a good old chuckle at my expense if you were here. But you are not and I am. How random is that?

I still remember the first time I felt you elbow-ing or knee-ing me from inside my tummy, as if we had an inside joke between us. I remember holding all three kilos of you in my arms for the first time. I couldn’t believe you were for real. You were all mine. Now my arms ache with emptiness. Is this real?

Do you miss me sometimes?

Happy birthday my darling.

Heaven

It will be the past

And we’ll live there together.

Not as it was to live

But as it is remembered.

It will be the past.

We’ll all go back together.

Everyone we ever loved,

And lost, and must remember.

It will be the past.

And it will last forever.

                      – A poem by Patrick Phillips, on the New York subway.

(“Ghar aa” is a Hindi phrase that means “Come home”)