He dropped out of the security of an Engineering Course to enrol into the futility of a dance school. He carved his way through sheer hard work from a humble home in the north-east of India to the flashing lights at the heart of Bollywood. He personified simplicity. He had no god-fathers in this brutal industry known for its nepotism and ruthlessness. He stood on the sheer credibility of his talent.
Stars, moons and aliens took up a lot of space in his head. He spent hours on his beloved telescope which he called his ‘time-machine’. He made new friends, kept old ones and his humility through the fame and the wealth of stardom. He stayed true to himself and his name which meant ‘Peaceful’.
His charm and talent won hearts all around. His youthful portrayal of his love of cricket came through in his films ‘KaiPoChe’ and “M.S Dhoni, the untold story“. But the media gave him a hard time as they saw him as an outsider. Of journalists he said, “First they’ll ignore you, then they’ll laugh at you and then they’ll fight with you. Right now, they’re laughing at me.”
Not anymore. Bollywood is in a state of shock. On the 14th of June 2020 Sushant Singh Rajput ended his life at the age of 34. It seems he had been on treatment for depression for the past 6 months. Police is frantically interviewing multiple people to establish a ‘cause’ for his death.
Film contracts falling through? Not enough new offers of interesting roles? Disparaging remarks made by influential bitchy colleagues? Being bullied and ignored? Financial difficulties? A painful break-up? The death of his mother at the age of 16? The death of his young manager, Disha Salian 3 days prior to his? Unmet parental expectations? Inadequate treatment for Depression? Migration away from home? Loneliness? Stigma of having a mental illness? Not knowing how to ask for help? Being a man?
That’s what it’s all about. Isn’t it? Our most basic needs.
For some, who were comfortable, these basics are threatened in the current climate. For some they have constantly been under threat. For the lucky ones, all is well. For now.
The fact remains that food needs to be grown by someone. Seeds need to be sown and nurtured. Given the right amount of nutrients, sun and water. Given time to mature and then harvested. Like Midas, even if everything else was made of gold, we could not eat it. Even if we put hundreds of satellites in space, we need our basic needs met.
Over the past few months I have appreciated growing a few things from seed. Sunflowers, mint, coriander and sage. Not enough to keep me alive but enough to give me a smug feel of being someone who grows stuff. I have little trays laid out by the windowsill and they fill me with pride each day they reach out for the sun, a few millimeters more than yesterday. What must it be like to be a real farmer!
In India, more than 11 thousand farmers ended their lives in the year 2016. Too much rain. Too little rain. Aberrant weather. Poor quality seeds. Exploitative middle men. Illness in the family. Monsanto. Easy access to pesticides. False promises of relief measures, incentivising a farmer suicide. The government promises money but fails to deliver again and again. It then blocks articles and videos that try to make this information public.
Kheyti is an organisation that helps small farmers design and implement low-cost farming interventions. “Greenhouse-in-a-Box” is a low-cost greenhouse bundled with end-to-end services. This greenhouse fits in 2-5% of a small farmer’s land, protects crops from environmental risks and grows 7 times more food using 90% less water.
This prolonged lockdown is going to affect many individuals and small businesses. Many are starting to worry about their very basic needs. Uncertainty, insecurity and the feeling of being stuck is rising everyday. Helplines are receiving more calls. Food banks have had to expand beyond capacity. The indirect and unintended consequences of the pandemic might be worse than the direct and predicted ones. As incomes fall away, despair in our communities will rise further.
Each of us needs to think of one person we know whose income might be affected by this and call them. We need to think of one person recently bereaved and call them. Not text. Not e-mail. Phone call. Speak. Directly. Ask questions. Connect, have a chat, come up with ideas and creative answers. Signpost to resources. Reassure. Give hope. Together, figure it out.
This too will pass but before that it will test us. All of us.
Asian countries account for more than 60% of world suicides.
According to the WHO, in the year 2016, suicide was the most common cause of death in the 15-39 age bracket in India, the highest in the South-East Asian region. India’s own official statistics, which map the number and causes of suicides in the country, have not been made public for the last three years, hindering suicide prevention strategies and efforts to implement the WHO’s recommendations in this regard.
In 2014, the WHO released a report with a series of recommendations for successful suicide prevention. It proposed a public health model for suicide prevention, consisting of four steps:
Identification of risks and protective factors
Development & evaluation of interventions
India has not progressed beyond the first step. Lack of political will, social stigma and inadequate mental health awareness in the general and medical communities contribute to the continuous rise in the death rate of young people by suicide in India.
A Junior Doctors World Congress was held at my alma mater, Christian Medical College Ludhiana in April 2019. Si and I ran a Mental Health Workshop that was attended by 75 medical students from India and the wider South and South East Asia region.
Motivated by this event, some students have established community mental health support networks and mentorship programmes at their respective institutions. I am impressed with their passion to make a difference.
Here is an example:
Early March I was back in Delhi and was honoured to be invited by Shruti Verma Singh, the founder of a Youtube channel, Zen-Brain.com. She is determined to increase the emotional awareness in India and does it gently, through a series of interviews. We met one afternoon to talk about Saagar. I hope her work will help wake up the government, break social stigma and drive understanding and compassion.
12 days ago I left my home and husband with a strange sense of ‘last-ness’. Si and I are familiar with that uncomfortable feeling. We know that the whole world can change in one second. 12 days is a long time.
Melbourne, Australia, was my final destination when I left home to complete my Churchill fellowship. On the way, I broke my journey for a week in India. I find it impossible to fly over India to go to other places without stopping. There, I watched in horror how much India’s centre has moved to the right. It has gone so far that the words ‘liberal’ and ‘secular’ are now bad words. My closest friend there is a Muslim gentleman whom I have known for the last 23 years and have never thought of him as a Muslim. But now I fear for his safety. I fear for the safety of all my family as I know that when there is fire, some are damaged by flames but many more by smoke.
So, here I am, in Melboune, at a house, rented through AirBnB and so much has happened in these 12 days. I have never understood the need for 24-hour News Channels as they endlessly repeat themselves, induce panic and heighten pre-existing anxieties. Many people are petrified. They are understandably worried about themselves and their loved ones. The restrictions being imposed are causing more isolation and angst. Italian prison scenario is a very sad example.
This is a good time to observe the effect news has on you, pay attention to your feelings and take a break when you need to, from the constant ranting of various media. I am doing that. I am keeping myself informed, connected and calm. I am not willing to allow the situation to affect my mind too much. I am taking all the precautions as advised and that is the best I can do. WHO sensibly says let’s look after our bodies and minds.
I suspect that death rates from this virus are being hugely exaggerated. They are based on projections from those who have been tested, but many people, all over the world have had a cold or flu over Jan and Feb and have not been tested. So, where does the truth lie?
Time to go home. One home to another. Travel. Separation and reunion. Heartbreak and excitement. Holiday over. Leaving. Letting go. Impermanence. Detachment. Being in the moment. Missing. Loving. Longing. Again.
Packing. Lists. Hair bobbles. Slippers. Tooth brush. Weight. Zips. Last minute shopping – pens, refills, stationery, spices. Last day catch-up phone calls. Savouring every morsel of mum’s food – aloo-methi, stuffed bhindi, whole masoor daal and the best carrot halwa in the world. Horse-shoe shaped bean cushions. Chipping nails.
All over the country, money is the hot topic. A month ago, the Prime Minister of India implemented a plan with the aim to remove black money from circulation. He declared two major cash denominations invalid – the 500 rupee bill and the 1000 rupee bill. These two are also commonly used in everyday lives of most people. The public has been given time till the end of December to deposit these bills in a bank , up to a certain limit and withdraw valid currency of 100 and 2000 rupee bills instead.
This has inconvenienced and caused damage to thousands of simple hard working people, farmers and businesses as the timing and execution of the plan has been appallingly poor. Yet, people have coped so far as they believe they are now participating in a cause that is for the greater good in the long run. As a by-product some people have realised that they don’t need as much as they think they do. Houses of worship and orphanages have been inundated with huge anonymous donations in the soon-to-be-invalid bills. Perfect strangers have helped each other out in various ways to help them tide over this crisis. Ingenious systems of barter are springing up in the face of this financial famine. There are horror stories, funny, sad and angry stories and people are talking to each other a lot more.
The most amazing thing to watch is the masses form queues outside banks. Orderly queues stretched over long distances on to main roads, around blocks of shops and on to open grounds. In all my life of knowing India, this is a first. Personal space may not be understood and respected by all but patiently forming and maintaining queues for many days and hours is an inadvertent gift of demonetisation.