All those decades ago when I was at school, bullies were visible. Their names were known. They were often big built and their demeanour, unpleasant. Girls could be bitchy, forming little clubs ousting this one or that one depending on how jealous they were of them. The playground was the scene for most unplayful activities. Lunch time was about much more than just lunch.
The only respite was that I knew when I left school I could leave it all behind and come home feeling safe. I wouldn’t have to deal with all that unpleasantness that went on at school.
Now, bullying happens over the electromagnetic waves all times of day and night, incessantly with no breaks. It can reach toilets and bedrooms. The instigators don’t have to have names or forms. They can be cowardly as hell and yet have the mean pleasure of bullying vulnerable people. The abusive messages are often un-erasable, making it possible for the victim to visit them repeatedly and being humiliated and traumatised over and over again. It is inescapable.
In Arabic, ‘Sarahah’ means ‘honesty’. It is also a highly trending app for anonymous messaging, invented by Mr Towfiq (above) from Egypt. He says it was designed so people could have honest feedback on their strengths and weaknesses from their colleagues at work. But in the west it is the perfect platform for anonymous nastiness.
The longest night of the year is behind us. The sun is rising. We are sitting by the log-fire swapping stories of Christmas’s past, Si’s and his sister’s childhood, drinking pots of tea, mainly to carry with it slabs of brandy-soaked Christmas cake.
We recount our holidays from a few years ago when Saagar had the pleasure (not) of dressing his first pheasant with the help of an aunt from the country. We all took turns at being beaten by him at table tennis. He looked gorgeous in a navy blue shirt and dark-rimmed spectacles. He had just been prescribed glasses. He was getting used to wearing them and I was getting used to seeing him wearing them.
Until he was 10, we religiously left a glass of wine and an orange for Santa on the mantle-piece. He wrote a letter to him every year. I remember he always started with “Dear Santa and Mrs Santa, …” 🙂 We took pictures with him. We watched his films and we found him to be cool and cuddly.
That year his gift was wrapped in a deep blue paper with glittery stars and snow-flakes in various shapes and sizes. He found just what he wanted inside. He jumped up and down for a bit and then sat down, visibly thinking.
“I saw a roll of this identical wrapping paper in the corner of the boiler cup-board.” He said. I sat on the sofa, over-smiling, as though I had nothing to hide. The mechanics of his brain clicked away as he figured out how the roll might have got there. I made feeble counter arguments.
“Maybe he had too many things to carry so he left some things here.”
“Maybe he wanted you to keep some of his favourite paper.”
“Maybe he has kept it for next year.”
“He left that paper there last year.”
He wasn’t fooled. That was the end of innocence.
Have a good one my darling, wherever you are. Lucky are the angels that are with you.
You are loved and cherished more than you know, Christmas or no Christmas.
Love you sweetheart! xxx
Couple of years before he died, Saagar thought I needed to see a therapist. He didn’t explain why. At the time I couldn’t figure out what he meant. I guess he could see that I did not know how to access the sweetness of life. I allowed preoccupations of work and practicalities of life to fill my time, leaving little room for love.
Painfully delicate and surprisingly strong, silk resembles love. The silkworms destroy the silk they produce as they emerge from their cocoons. That is why farmers have to make a choice between silk and silkworms. Often they kill the silkworm while it is inside the cocoon so as to pull the silk out intact. It takes the lives of hundreds of silkworms to make as scarf. But for the silk to survive, the silkworm has to die.*
At a small and sweet ceremony, in the middle of nowhere, in the presence of twenty people, holding the holy fire as witness, Si and I tied the knot yesterday. It was a joyous day, a celebration of love.
On the previous night the moon was full. Saagar was with us.
“Sorrow prepares you for joy. It violently sweeps everything out of your house, so that new joy can find space to enter. It shakes the yellow leaves from the bough of your heart, so that fresh, green leaves can grow in their place. It pulls up the rotten roots, so that new roots hidden beneath have room to grow. Whatever sorrow shakes from your heart, far better things will take their place.” – Rumi
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.
The experts on the gardening programme on the radio said that repotting is traumatic for plants. I had never thought about that before. Should it be any different for children and families moving house?
By virtue of my dad’s job, we moved more or less every 2 years. Some of the places we lived in are not easy to find on the map of India. I completed 12 years of schooling in 8 different schools in India. It was normal to be the new girl in class. We went to schools that catered to families that moved frequently. So, often there would be other new kids in class too. It was heart-breaking to leave friends just when our friendships were deepening. As time went on, it became a part of life and although it was sad, I could handle it much better. That was partially because I altered the quality of my relationships. I didn’t allow them to get too deep. I protected myself by holding back a bit of me for myself. That bit would always be safe. I didn’t know I was doing it then but I see it now.
The cycle repeated itself with Saagar. The difference was that he travelled outside India to places where he would be the only coloured kid in class, where they spoke a different language in a peculiar accent, where he had no close friends or extended family, where it was normal for people to live all their lives in one place and be buried in the cemetery two streets away from their primary school.
Grief can come in intangible forms – loss of trust, loss of innocence, loss of safety, loss of childhood, loss of control and loss of faith. A 2010 study of 7,000 American adults found that the more times a person had moved house in childhood, the more likely they were to report lower life satisfaction and well-being, irrespective of their age, gender and education.
In the mid 80s, Dr Vincent Felitti ran an Obesity clinic in America. Many people enrolled and hundreds of pounds were shed by them. But he found that the drop-out rate from his programme was as high as 50% despite good results. He did not understand this and went back to look closely at patient notes.
“I had assumed that people who were 400, 500, 600 pounds would be getting heavier and heavier year after year. In two thousand people, I did not see it once. When they gained weight, it was abrupt and then they stabilized. If they lost weight, they regained all of it or more over a very short time.”
The turning point in Felitti’s quest came by accident. He was running through yet another series of questions with yet another obesity program. How much did you weigh when you were born…when you were in first grade…when you were in high school…when you first became sexually active…
One female patient replied – “Forty pounds” and broke down in floods of tears, “I was four years old.” He found similar common themes emerging from various stories and went on researching this subject for the next 25 years.
The obese people that Felitti was interviewing were 100, 200, 300, 400 overweight, but they didn’t see their weight as a problem. To them, eating was a fix, a solution like IV drug user calls a dose a “fix”.
Eating made them feel better. Eating soothed their anxiety, fear, anger or depression – it worked like alcohol or tobacco or methamphetamines. Not eating increased their anxiety, depression, and fear to levels that were intolerable. For many people, just being obese solved a problem. In the case of the woman who’d been raped, she felt as if she were invisible to men.
Felitti went on to further explore the impact of childhood trauma on people and coined the term – ACE, Adverse Chilhood Experience. He found a strong co-relation between the number of ACEs and early death.