All those years ago, when we were kids, we attended medical school together. The Batch of 1983 had its 3rd re-union at Cochin, the capital of Kerala in South India over the last 3 days. I travelled from snow-bound Wiltshire to lush green tropics. Many of my classmates came together from all over the globe. Some brought their families. Others brought videos of their kids doing this and that. I brought memories. We shared stories of our teachers and colleagues from our time as adolescents and young doctors at our alma mater. We felt close to each other, reminiscing our naivety, vulnerability and innocence. Nostalgia of our ‘good old days’ of simplicity, like silk threads knitted us close.
We went sari shopping. My friend chose a pale blue sari with a gold border. Her 15 year old daughter commented, “it’s as bland as playing tennis without a net.” It was exactly the kind of thing Saagar would say. He would also take great pleasure in imitating the way I say, “So pretty. No?”. Aaaaaaaaargh!!!
If I told my plight to a river, it would stop flowing. If I told it to a tree it would shed all its leaves. I burn in this fire of longing, again and again, every day. I have become a boat of compassion filled with the gold of nothing, riding the waves in search of my beloved. I weather the tides of sorrow and happiness while my longing lives in me. I find my beloved in my longing. There is no destination no more.
An ancient parable goes like this: Once a forest caught fire and all the birds and animals of that forest started to leave. There was a bright little parrot who decided to stay. The tree that housed it said, ”You have wings. Go. Fly away.”
“I ate your fruit, I soiled your leaves, I played from branch to branch. You burn and I fly away? You love but once.”
The utterly foolish parrot goes and plunges herself in a nearby lake, comes back and flaps her wings over the blazing forest fire. Two drops of water fall. She goes back into the lake and come back with another couple of drops of water and sprinkles them over the humungous fire. The other fleeing birds and animals start scoffing and laughing at her.
“What do you think you are doing?”, they say.
The parrot turns around and says “I am doing what I can.”
Just then the Gods pass by and see this bird. They take the form of an eagle and watch her closely. They are incredible moved to see her do what needed to be done, be in the here and now and her passionate endeavours to quench the fire in and around her. The Gods wept and the clouds burst into a heavy down pour of milk.
Everyday my love is new.
I wish you the same.
“Whatever happens in your life, no matter how troubling things might seem, do not enter the neighbourhood of despair. Even when all doors remain closed, God will open-up a new path only for you. Be thankful when all is well. A Sufi is thankful not only for what he has been given but also for all that has been denied.” – From ‘Forty rules of love’ by Elif Shafak.
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!
Wonder what Saagar would have made of Brexit. He would have wanted easy access to France. He was a die-hard Francophile. He loved the intricacies of French language, food and wine, girls… He wanted to work there at some stage, to practice his French.
Trump would have been extremely amusing and concerning for him. I think he would have had fun making a cartoon character of him and imitating his mannerisms and speech. He used to mimic Bush Junior a lot, to our great amusement.
He would have had some strong and interesting opinions about gender identity politics and ‘safe spaces’ in Universities, which mean different things to different people. I was told that in his first year at University he volunteered as a student counsellor for LGBT students but in the second year he withdrew from that role. Did he not feel well enough within himself? Was that an indication that he knew something wasn’t the same?
Burning Middle-East, migrating populations, global tensions, towering infernos and erratic climatic phenomena – I wonder what he would have thought of all these things.
The passage of time is dragging me away from the point when he was alive. I grieve the widening gap between then and now. That time is receding further and further away like a very low tide. Physically, the current keeps flowing in one direction – away. Mentally, it dances, twirls and circles, touching many points over the past 24 years and gathering up as many gems as possible, folding them neatly and putting them away safely, to be revisited again and again and again… What if I forget everything? What if it goes too far away and then disappears? What if I can’t touch that time ever again?
It seems like that was another lifetime. Some moments however last forever. My mind has been dancing in overlapping elliptical, circular, zig-zag and squiggly shapes between the remotest past and the far future and deep inside this bottomless present moment. I find gems scattered all around. Today the moment when I first saw his face shone the brightest. I picked it up. I held it in both my hands, looked at it for a while, felt it, kissed it and held it close to my heart. This is where he lives. In my heart, in the past, the future and the Now. That moment from another lifetime is mine again.
Experiences can only be experienced. Not explained. Ones who has experienced it know it, ones who haven’t can have a guess. Some songs say it all. This one does. It speaks to me. It’s a song of love. Roberta Flack sings to my heart. She knows how I felt the first time ever I saw his face.
“The first time ever I saw your face
I thought the sun rose in your eyes
And the moon and the stars were the gifts you gave
To the dark and the endless skies my love
To the dark and the endless skies
The first time ever I kissed your mouth
I felt the earth move in my hand
Like the trembling heart of a captive bird
That was there at my command my love
That was there at my command my love
And the first time ever I lay with you
I felt your heart so close to mine
And I knew our joy would fill the earth
And last ’till the end of time my love
And it would last ’till the end of time
The first time ever I saw your face
Your face, your face.”
As soon as he could walk with support, leaving home in the buggy for a walk in the evening meant, him pushing the buggy, taking it for a walk. Looking into the mirror, playing hide and seek with himself was fun. Kicking a cotton sheet off him with his frantically moving arms and legs was fun. Wearing big sunglasses and shoes was fun. Playing with toys and words was fun. Crawling, walking, running was fun. Dabbling in different kinds of music was fun. The ‘bandana’ phase was fun. Playing and listening to any kind of percussion was fun.
Going round and round while sitting in one of my mother’s big cooking pots with a convex bottom was fun. On his second birthday, we found him in the balcony with a pot of yogurt, officiously feeding himself and our dog, Caesar, with alternate spoonfuls of the honeyed white stuff. As he grew older, pulling faces was fun. Smurfs and Mighty Morphin Power Rangers was fun. The little toy in the occasional Happy Meal at McDonalds was fun. Z-Ball was fun.
Being back here in my parent’s house brings back heart-warming memories of his childhood. He was such good fun!
An excerpt from a speech made by one of Saagar’s friends at his memorial at Durham:
“Whilst complaints about the noise level were regular, complaints about the type of music that was being played were few and far between as Saagar regarded his taste of music as above reproach. And to be fair – it was not far off. It was the epitome of eclectic – spanning Heavy Metal, Hip Hop and Punjabi M.C. Or as Saagar would put it – White man music, Black man music and Brown man music. Fortunately, for all of us today, Saagar would not rest on his laurels when it came to music, and instead was a gifted drummer. I never saw Saagar more excited than when he was talking about his latest venture with Lenny and the Mandem. Being part of that band meant the world to him. For that – I feel we owe Lenny and the Mandem a debt of gratitude: not only for providing Saagar with a musical outlet that fast became the highlight of his university life, but also for providing a platform upon which Saagar could showcase his amazing talents behind a drum set. I know that he felt incredibly honored to play alongside you all, and I for one, felt incredibly honored to be listening.
Indeed, one of the major highlights of my time at Durham so far, was having Lenny and the Mandem play at my 21st birthday party at Fabio’s last year. At the time, I did not know the rest of the band too well – but knowing how much of a fan I was – Saagar made the necessary arrangements for them to perform during our celebrations. Whilst this was enough to already make my evening, Saagar went one step further, and arranged for the band to cover a song from my all-time favourite band: Dire Straits. What followed was a moment that I will never forget. I looked up to the stage when I recognized the introductory guitar riff to Sultans of Swing and saw Saagar’s head poking out from behind his drum set – mouthing the words ‘Happy birthday brother!’. What seemed to be a mere song to so many at the party, was in fact the most touching gesture from a very dear friend. A gesture made all the more poignant by his passing.
This was not the only music-based memory of Saagar that will live long in the memory. Perhaps the most amusing moment I shared with him happened in the Aidan’s cafeteria. The summer ball act was about to be announced, and our lunch time conversation had turned to the one act or group (Dead or alive) we would most like to see perform live. We went around the table, and each person took a few minutes to consider their answer before saying somewhat predictable musical heavyweights from the last 50 years or so (from the Beatles’ to Tupac Shakur). The conversation then turned to Saagar, and he replied completely deadpan and without a moment’s hesitation with: Dido. The table erupted with laughter as nobody could believe that someone felt so passionately about what can only be described as elevator music but Saagar defended his decision with aplomb. From that point onwards – we decided to begin the rumor that Dido was going to be made the summer ball act, and much to our surprise –this went viral. So viral in fact, that Basshunter’s first few songs were drowned out with chanting from the crowd for Dido to come on. If the Aidan’s social chair is in the crowd – please take note. I can think of no better tribute than Life for Rent ringing around the halls of Aidan’s and it would be a massive improvement on that bloke we had last year. Whoever he was – he sounded like a cross between a digitally modified car crash and a Harrison Sand’s D.J. Set. Saagar did not approve.
One thing Saagar would have approved of however, would be the number of people who have taken the time to attend this memorial today – and indeed, the number of people who turned up to his funeral and the memorial service hosted by his alma mater: Dulwich College. At both of these previous events, the audience was completely full with people who had come to pay their respect.
As I stand here, still struggling to talk about such a presence in the past tense, I am comforted by the fact that the lessons we learnt from Saagar will never leave us. The most important one he taught me was pride. No matter what, Saagar remained unapologetically proud about so much in his life, and this pride was truly contagious. He took pride in his upbringing, and the sheer courage it took for him to move from India, to a period of racial bullying in Belfast to the drastically different setting of one of the country’s leading public schools (although speaking from experience – public schools are perhaps not the best place to seek refuge from racism!). This did not affect him in the slightest however. In fact – he remained so proud of being brown that he resorted to smoking out of liquorice rolling papers that were as brown as he was. Another thing I know he was very proud of was his time here at Durham, proud of his achievements: both academic and extra- curricular. Proud of the friends he made, and proud of the experiences he shared with them. Whilst he may no longer be with us, this pride lives on in each of us – as we are all immeasurably proud to have known him, and prouder still of how he chose to spend his tragically short time on this earth, leaving little more than the wisdom he imparted, the compassion he shared and the untiring friendships he made.
Since his passing, and despite the atheist outlook I shared with him, I have often found myself wondering what Saagar would be doing right now in the unlikely even that we were both wrong, and that there is a God and a Heaven above. I wonder if his room up there still smells the same, I wonder if he has found a place to buy those dumplings he always used to eat, and I wonder if Jesus has told him to turn his music down. Is there a drum kit in heaven? And even if there is – has he found a band with a front man as good as Lenny Jesinghausen? Does heaven have a cricket club – and if so – does that still mean his bowling action is illegal? In the unlikely event that religion IS true, and that I have not spent the last 3 years and nearly 30 grand on a theology degree that equates to studying ancient fairytales, I guess we will all be able to answer these questions for ourselves one day. Personally, the first thing I intend to do is to catch up with Saagar over a fag in Heaven’s smoking area. I hope you will join us.
This is likely to be the final opportunity we have to pay our respects as a group. In a brief hour or so this memorial will conclude, the crowd will disperse, and slowly but surely, we will draw a line under this chapter and resume our lives. Saagar cannot do this. He has no line to draw, no life left to resume.
As a result, I implore you to take some time out to honour him in your own way. He had a youtube video for all occasions, so perhaps rewatch some of them. Listen to Dido, smoke a liquorice cigarette or something stronger if that’s your thing. But above all – never forget. Never forget the memories you made, never forget the laughter you shared, and most of all never forget the lessons you learned from him.
He lived for a mere 20 years, may his legacy live on forever. ”
It was an evening of sharing Saagar’s story with a group of lovely young women. We talked about the art of listening non-judgementally. We practiced the skill and found it tricky. We noticed the strong urge to jump in with solutions and ‘fix it’. We found silent pauses awkward.
We explored the things that stop us from listening – a thousand things knocking about in our own head already, our own stress levels, fear of having to take action, fear of saying the wrong thing, I am not qualified, it’s not my job, and so on. Most of the reasons came from a judgement of ourselves or the situation.
Out of the blue, a thought ran clearly through my mind and before I knew it, I was speaking it out loud. I was reminded of a constant grievance I used to have with Saagar. I would request him to not leave utensils in the kitchen sink after use. How difficult could it be to put the dishes into the dish-washer? But, I often found dishes left in the sink. That small thing pushed my buttons. I would tell him off for being lazy and for not respecting this small request I made of him. I judged him. I couldn’t see that he was depressed.
Judgements come from the head.
Connection comes from the heart.
Harsh judgements create great distances between hearts.
I must not judge myself too harshly now. I am learning. Mindfully and heartfully.