No shame. Just love.

Last week I met Matt. A young man, calmly determined to share his story and open up a rainbow that would envelop the world and knit it closer together. A story of a glorious love, a damning shame and a tragic unnecessary death.

Matt and Naz met in Birmingham in the year 2000 and instantly fell in love. Matt Ogston and Dr Nazim Mahmood. Both men. Men in love. They tried having a relationship in that city but knew that if they wanted to live like normal people doing normal things, they’d have to move away. So, they did. Over the next 13 years they built and lived a fulfilled and happy life together in London. All this time they managed to hide their gayness from Naz’s family as it was guaranteed to create unhappiness.

One weekend Naz needed to go back to Birmingham for a family event. The question of his sexuality came up and he spoke the truth. As expected, his family reacted badly. He was told that he was living in ‘sin’ and his ‘condition’ was treatable. I cannot imagine how he must have felt. Deeply humiliated I guess. That day he must have known that now, he could never be the man he was born to be. His love for his fiancé would always be seen as sin by others he deeply loved.

He returned to London. To Matt. Two days later he ended his life.

In his utter devastation, Matt found the determination to do what he could, to stop religion from getting in the way of love. He set up the Naz and Matt Foundation.

“Our mission is to never let religion, any religion, come in the way of the unconditional love between parents and their children.”

Methuselah

One morning, despite severe inertia and amplified gravity, I carried my body through treacle to a yoga lesson nearby. Once I got there, the music, the incense, the light, the chanting, the breathing and the presence of other people lightened me up and I got into the groove.

I became the rhythm of my breath and the simultaneous harmonious dance of the body with the breath. Each posture pushed me just a little bit outside my comfort zone and the energy started to shift and flow. Before I knew it one hour was up. As we were finishing off the session with a short meditation, Felix, the teacher said “Dedicate your practice to someone you love.”

In that moment, tears sprung out in rivers. Out of nowhere, all on their own accord, they flooded me. I lay in the corpse pose (shavasana) and the warmth of my tears continued to soak the hair at both my temples.

Just then a set of 4 light soft paws, one by one stepped on to my tummy. I am familiar with the weight and size of such paws due to our feline, Milkshake’s nightly visits. Instantly, I broke into a smile. I lifted my head and opened one eye. A black cat that had been lazing on a sofa previously had made itself comfortable on top of me, rolled up into a ball. The fuzzy warmth of that circle travelled all the way to my heart. I sat up and cuddled it, stroked it and thanked it for reaching out to me. It was gracious enough to let me. Love was boomeranging.

Mirror, mirror …

5 feet 5 inches. Average frame. 67 kilos. Completely owns her 52 years. Medium brown skin, a shade darker in a horizontal oval shape around the lips and in half-moons under the eyes.

It used to be thick black and curly but now it’s scant, allowing pale scalp to peep through in places. The blackness now replaced with streaks of silver, grey and pale brown that she wears in a bunch behind her head. The curls are now looser, more manageable. The hairline, less defined.

The oval face bears a forehead with 2 thin but clear, straight horizontal lines running parallel, about 1 centimeter apart, from one side of the face to the other. A baby line is forming on top of these two. Faint but visible on a closer look.

Asymmetrical eye-brows, the left one bearing a scar from a childhood fall. Not bushy, not sleek, not modified. Just plain, normal, slightly curved, unremarkable black brows concaving over dark brown eyes with microscopic gold flecks. The ones she passed on to her son. They are almond shaped and carry a sadness which lingers even when her face breaks into a smile. She didn’t know that her eyes closed when she laughed. A stranger told her once. He’s now her husband.

Her nose is odd. She’s always been embarrassed about it. Too broad. Too big. Strangely no one else seems to think so. Maybe they’re just being polite. Maybe they don’t really care. Maybe its inconsequential.

Her small shapely ears, adorned with traditional diamond studs set in the shape of a flower with 6 petals. Her lips, brownish-purple with a hint of pink where they meet. Her husband says she reminds him of the ancient drawings of apsaras at the caves of Ajanta and Ellora. Her teeth, perfect. Her chin, proud. Her jawline, clean. Her neck and shoulders, silky.

Her loose-fitting, sleeveless olive-green linen tunic has a modest V-neck. It allows her to freely move and breathe. And lets her hide herself. A pair of grey tights cover her legs.

She sits out in the sun in her backyard which is green with grass and weeds. One shrub with big round heads of purple and yellow flowers dominates half the square patch. She trims it every autumn and it comes back bigger and ever-more-loving the following year. Some say it looks untidy but who cares. She loves it.

Her study table is a mess and so are her ward-robes. Only she knows that. Everyone else seems to think she is super organised.

Halfway down her left arm, half a tattoo can be seen from the front. It is blackish-green in colour. It has English letters hanging off a horizontal line, like they do in Hindi script. The font is predictably called Ananda Namaste.  One afternoon in September 2016 in Lagos, Portugal, a skinny middle-aged man with glasses took 45 minutes to make it. He didn’t make small talk. What did this word mean? Why this? Why now? She was relieved. All she knew was that she would never change her mind or heart about this one. She would always love Saagar.

At 15.

Cricket in the summers and badminton in the winters. That’s what Saagar chose to play during his school years. He was good at both and wanted to be better.

I often went along to watch him play, even though I didn’t appreciate all the technicalities of either game. One evening we gathered in the Sports club to watch him play. I noticed that every time he missed a shot he hit his right leg hard with the badminton racket gripped in his right hand. That must hurt. I didn’t understand. It distressed me. I spoke with him later. “It’s only a game, darling.”, I said. He kept quiet, neither defending his action, nor arguing with me, pointedly focussing on the piece of ground hit by his obliquely downcast eyes.  In him I saw a boy in pursuit of perfection.

Out of the blue he broke up with his lovely girl-friend of 7 months. That too on Valentine’s Day. His first love. Sweet and innocent. On being asked why, he said, ”It’s boring.” Soon after, late one night I gleened tears in his eyes as he hugged me, pretending not to sob. In him I saw a boy, trying to be a man. Oh! The pains of growing!

After a night out with friends, one weekend I noticed a cluster of 3 pea-sized fresh burn marks on his right forearm. Horrified, I asked what happened. He said it was a dare. A few of his friends were being goofy and challenged him to hold the burnt end of a cigarette on his skin and he did. He laughed as if it was a joke. I didn’t know what to make of it. How could this bright kid with an astute sense of right and wrong be talked into this kind of silliness? In him, I saw a boy trying to fit in with his peers.

Was there more to see? Did he tell me everything or just what he thought I could handle?

We love. Therefore, we are.

Nearly 5 years on, we gather again. This time it’s a 25th birthday party. Many in the room are in their mid-twenties. It’s their party. It’s everyone’s. There’s an open mike. Young voices. A few songs are special – Dolly Partons’ ‘Jolene’, Timberlake’s ‘Cry me a river’. By divine conspiracy, there is this song from the CD Saagar got me one Christmas –  Corinne Bailey Rae’s ‘Girl put your record on’. I sing along nice and loud, word for word, like I used to, a long time back!  It’s our music, biryani and laughter. A strong sense of belonging binds the room together. Sadness and joy are everywhere, stuck together like conjoint twins.  

When I supposedly had ‘everything’, I didn’t know how to access true joy. Now that I don’t have ‘everything’, I do. Even if it happens for tiny snippets of time, it happens in its fullness. It’s like being immersed in a singing warm ocean of bliss. The brickwork of resistance drops off. Everything is in harmony with my cosmos. Everything that steps in the way melts away. I am complete with everything just the way it is. This enticing path of joy meanders through a dark forest of grief. I carry the forest with me. And its black shadows. And all its wild animals that threaten to kill. We celebrate. We sing, laugh and we dance. We hug and cry and eat and drink as one. We are held in the warm embrace of a field of love that nourishes our souls.

We hurt alone and heal together.

Uganda Diaries

Frantically searching for an important document, I rummaged through all my papers up and down the Study. My mind can’t be trusted with anything anymore! My memory is shot. I exhausted myself and all my options. Over a cup of tea, I thought about all the places I had not looked through. A box full of Saagar’s books and diaries. I never read through any of his personal stuff. But that day, before I knew it, I had read all his musings from his travels to Uganda with a friend. They were there for 2 weeks to help at a local school supported by their College.

It seems when he was struggling, he wrote. Like me. He wrote exactly as he spoke, leaving some words half said and stretching out the first letter of unspeakable words. His diary was reading itself to me in his voice. I felt like he was in the room. I was an intruder. It wasn’t my place to read it. It was personal to him. But it was also my conduit to him even if it was written 27 months prior to Day 0.

It was clear that the boys were totally unprepared for the massive change. This is the note from his last day there.

30/7/2012. 2300 hrs.

“Never before have I been able to say the words “I want my mommy!” with as much certainty as now. This sucks ass. I feel like such a pathetic little shit. I hope missing Mother is no more than a manifestation of homesickness.”

A deep feeling. Then a judgement. Then an admonishment and then a substitution. A minimization. A classic example of a young man being brutally unkind to himself even though he is suffering. Being a ‘man’. Not allowing for any fragility even in the face of a harsh reality.

Fact: He missed me. Thinking of me brought him comfort. I have evidence.

How could I ever doubt that? By judging myself too critically. Why do we do this to ourselves?

That was a beautiful gift from you to me on your birthday my son. 25th birthday! Bless you my love.  

Visiting my adolescence

Innkeeper's wife

(The mean, very mean wife of the inn-keeper. Nativity play 1983. CMC Ludhiana. India.)

Once upon a time I used to be a kid. A bright and happy kid. I nearly forgot that girl. She used to be fun. She loved singing, dancing and play-acting. She had thick black, unusually curly, short hair. She laughed easily and played harmless pranks. She listened to music on the radio with such ardour that her day was planned around the timings of her favourite programmes on the Urdu service of All India Radio. The last few pages of all her notebooks were filled with scribbled lyrics of songs written at speed to keep pace with them as they played on the old Murphy which was a part of her mother’s dowry. Then she neatly transcribed the messy song-words from the back pages of her notebooks onto a special red diary which was her treasure.

A few months back I accepted an invitation from my alma mater, Christian Medical College, Ludhiana, India.  This is where I trained to be a doctor and an anaesthetist, nearly 30 years ago. They requested me to run a Mental Health workshop for about 70 medical students and make a Keynote address at the World Junior Medical Congress they were hosting in early April.

While preparing my lecture, I dug up a few old pictures. They flew me back in time. I saw what I looked like when I was Saagar’s age. It was a strange juxtaposition. So much had changed. Oh, that heart-breaking innocence! The stars in my eyes shone so bright, they nearly blinded me. Who was this lovely girl? Where is she now? She has walked a long way and formed a big circle. She is back where she started, working with what she has – her Love, her Grief and her Self.

MH Workshop

The workshop was four and a half hours long. The sharing was powerful, the enthusiasm infectious. The learning for all of us was invaluable. It was fun! We sang and we danced. We worked and we played. It was just like the old times. Saagar was there. He was smiling his crooked smile.

“There is nothing in the world, I venture to say, that would so effectively help one to survive even the worst conditions as the knowledge that there is a meaning in one’s life.” – Victor Frankl.