Optimism?

Last Thursday night I had to think about what to wear as I was going out. Proper going out – to a gig at a small venue in Tower Bridge. Hugo, one of Saagar’s closest friends from school had released a single in his memory and was performing live and raising funds for Papyrus. I would be seeing our friends, have a drink and possibly dinner at a restaurant.  Wow! About time. It’s been ages.

Took a train to London Bridge and as I was walking out of the station, 2 announcements came on in quick succession –

“The 1831 to Peterborough has been cancelled due to a person being hit be a train.”

“The 1830 to Horsham has been cancelled due to a person being hit by a train.”

That Thursday was back again. It was Day 0 again. At this very station, an announcement was made to say my train home had been cancelled. I found an alternative route without thinking once why my train was cancelled.

It is spreading. Despite everything we do. It keeps happening. This morning I woke up to talk of another lock-down and my heart sank. I have an income and a home and someone to share my life with. How many don’t? I have hope and optimism. How many don’t? How many other hearts sank this morning?

The prospect of going on living in a world without a warm touch or hugs or smiles is nothing less than a punishment. The morning is greyer and colder than it has been in a long time. The days are shrinking. I am reminded of 6 years ago, at this time of the year, as autumn was fast approaching and Saagar was ill, I was optimistic. I didn’t have the slightest doubt. I knew he would get better.

Now, I doubt my optimism.

PS: Please listen to this song and share it on: “Lay down” by Hugo Hartley on Spotify

Many more songs by him on Youtube:

Thank you Ma’am.

She was just over 4 feet tall but her voice boomed across the workshop as if it was arising from a big Bose speaker. She spoke, taught, lived, breathed Ikenobo, the oldest discipline in Japanese flower arranging, broadly known as Ikebana. 1400 years, to be precise. It was her life, her passion and she generously gave it to us, her students.

Initially I couldn’t figure out what I should call her. In India, I would have called her ‘Aunty’, but it didn’t seem right. Some called her by name but I couldn’t do that. I tried it but it felt wrong. She was nearly my mum’s age. I dug out the word ‘Ma’am’ from my college days, a term used to address female teachers. It felt right to me and seemed fine by her.  

She drew schematic diagrams of arrangements on a white board in front of the class, explaining the name, function, quality and significance of each component. She emphasised the relationship between different parts of an arrangement but mostly, she spoke of the importance of spaces between them.

Wood symbolized mountains while grasses and flowers suggested water. A natural landscape, in a single vase. It was a meditation of sorts, exploring the relationship between the sky, humans and earth, between the outdoors and indoors. It had philosophical representations of the past, present and future. It was about harmony and the laws of nature, a welcome break from the cacophony of London.

After Saagar passed away, she gently encouraged me to join her classes. She knew this art form would help. Mondays became exciting because they were the day of the lessons. Couldn’t believe how little they cost. It definitely was not about money. I joined this community of aspiring flower-arrangers who like me, were constantly baffled by how minor changes made by her, transformed our arrangements into spectacular creations.

Ma’am was a walking-talking Encyclopaedia on all things garden. She had looked after award winning gardens for most of her life. She knew wholesale flower markets intimately and could predict and cherish the floral offerings of every month, every season accurately. But last week, an unfortunate accident suddenly took her away from us, from this earth.  

“Not only beautiful flowers but also buds and withered flowers have life, and each has its own beauty. By arranging flowers with reverence, one refines oneself”, she would say.  

We will miss you and your finesse, Ma’am. My head bows to the space left by you. Thank you for helping me see beauty in everything.

Vite Vine

Darling Saagar,

You learnt your English in the UK from English-speaking people. I learnt it in fits and starts from Hindi/Punjabi/Bengali-speaking folk in India. It was not a surprise that you were only 10 when you took it upon yourself to start correcting my English. All the time.

“Saagar, please would you close the vindow?”

“The parent’s meeting is on Vednesday. No?”

“Where does the best Vite Vine come from?”

You would be all over the floor. What was funny? These were simple questions. In Hindi, there is an equivalent for ‘v’. None for ‘w’. The sound of ‘w’ is learnt. I learnt it and can apply it to everything except nouns. Must be a genetic aberration. I had a huge sense of achievement when I made you laugh, given my sense of humour was nothing compared to yours.

Other words that I spoke wrongly were – rebel (re-bell), adolescence (a-doll-essence) and such.

Sometimes I knowingly uttered incorrect sentences, so you could correct me, playing with your predictable pleasures.

“Bought a really nice t-shirt today.” you said.

‘What colour?’

“Not ‘what colour’ Mamma. It’s ‘which colour’.”

‘Ah. Right. What colour?’ I asked again with a crooked smile.

Rolling-up your eyes, shaking your head from side to side.

“Parents!”

Laughter.

We’re in lockdown at present, Saagar. Long story! I can’t help thinking how fab it would be to have you home. We would have so much time together to try new recipes, to exercise and laugh, play carom and do some gardening, relax and watch funny cat-videos and so on…

Time … tic-toc, tic-toc … gone forever.

My mind plays silly monkey-tricks with me. The rascal. I watch it. Holding my own, I am not getting carried away with it. I am being the witness (vitness).

You are here, with me always.

I love you.

Yours,

Mamma.

The good times.

Once again I found myself sitting in the waiting room at a Healing Centre in Wales. I sat facing a wall covered with effusive and colourful thank-you messages plus baby pictures. They were addressed to the acupuncturist who had helped these women become mums. I was here to connect with my son through the beautiful, Moya, whom I have seen twice before. She is compassion personified. Each time I have met her, I have found great comfort in her readings and felt close to Saagar. So, despite Storm Dennis, train disruptions, a brewing respiratory infection and a serious jet-lag, I made my way up in water-proofs and a big red polo-neck jumper.

The first thing she mentioned was Varanasi. A seat of learning. A place of pilgrimage, where the temporality of this human body is clear to see. Of course, Varanasi, where Saagar’s ashes are immersed in the Ganges, where we had a prayer ceremony with 5 priests simultaneously chanting and carrying out various rituals for 5 hours to help Saagar’s soul transcend peacefully into another realm. Where my ashes will go.

Then came a string of other places and memories: Playing catching-catch on a beach in Port Rush, stepping over multitudes of hexagonal stones at Giant’s Causeway, crossing the flimsy Carrick-a-rede bridge, the 3-day trip on a narrow boat one beautiful summer, shopping in New York, visiting his Uncle, Aunt and new-born cousin in Chicago, admiring the moon and stars through the big Velux windows in his large loft conversion space. All these sweet things came up.

He wanted to present me a Cherry blossom. Did that make any sense to me? Yes. Coming up to March, we would be using Sakura in our Ikebana arrangements, bringing nature into our homes. A very special time of year for this Japanese art.

Moya said he is peaceful where he is. He understands that sometimes I breath deep and hard to stay alive and sometimes it feels like I am breathing glass and sometimes I wish I could just stop. He understands. And he holds all these happy memories and places that he cherishes.

He’s reminding me of the good times. I need to look at them and cherish them much more than I do. They were ours. They will always be ours.

To you, with love. xxx

Sixth Christmas with your empty chair

Now more salt, less pepper in my hair.

That I’ve been breathing all this time

Still makes no sense, no reason, no rhyme.

Your cat makes all the other felines quake

His sweet name, given by you, is still Milkshake.

The Christmas markets we visited at the Southbank

The doughy sweets we gorged and the German beer we drank.

Those candle stalls and hand-knit shops, I believe are still there

But a visit, I cannot bear.

Ice skating at Somerset house with friends

Merry shopping here and there, for odds and ends.

Cocktails at ‘All bar One’ after work at Waterloo

What I would give to have another one, with you.

Beating the hell out of every one at Ping-pong.

Not many of your moves, slow or wrong.

The years trundle in and roll out like a stream,

I watch and wonder how they could be both,

A nightmare and a dream.  

Standing back, I watch and see.

Trying not to judge. Just be.

There are but three things to know,

To love, to learn and to let go.

To love, to learn and to let go.

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?

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.  

A letter

Darling Saagar,

It’s a sunny Saturday afternoon in mid-August and I am missing you. To say ‘I miss you’ is like saying ‘I am alive’. I think of all the evenings and weekends I spent at work while you were home. At that time, I thought I had no choice but now I know I did. I thought wrong. I think of the time we were walking through an ‘Ideal Home Show’ and you wanted to buy a brown leather bean-bag for your room and I said no. I thought you should have more floor space. Again, I thought wrong. These thoughts are sets of darts that fly in uninvited at supersonic speed and leave parallel rows of bleeding abrasions behind.

This summer has been exceptionally glorious but Nature at large is annoyed with us I think. There have been flash-floods, droughts and heat-waves in most unlikely of places, forest-fires and famines, violent volcanoes and earth-quakes. I wonder what you would’ve made of the burning Middle-east, Mr Trump, Brexit and North Korea. If only Electric cars could solve all the problems of the world.

They say the longest journey is from the head to the heart. I made that journey in one second – the second I knew you were gone. You won’t believe how many real friends and real conversations I now enjoy. I also read a lot more. I wonder what you think of my new reading glasses – metallic purple frame. Yes. The time has come. After carrying them all over the world in a red polka-dotted Cath Kidson case for more than a year, I have finally started wearing them.

While clearing up a corner of the study I found a set of drum-sticks that belong to you. They looked well used. ‘REGAL TIP USA But Naked’. 🙂 I held them in my hands like you would’ve. You remember how we competed in the game of ‘chop sticks’? One shrimp, one string of spaghetti, one edamame bean, one grain of rice, half an edamame bean and so on… you won every time. You rascal!

Yesterday, the ‘Old people’s’ radio said that ‘Friends’ was the most streamed TV programme on-line. I remember how our opinions about Rachel clashed as though she was the most important person in our lives. FYI, I’ve still not changed my mind about her.

West Norwood High street has many more cafés now – Thai, French, Brazilian and Portuguese. I feel a stronger sense of community is developing here. The new improved South London Theatre is putting up some great shows and a new Cinema is being built where the Library used to be. The streets and cafés miss you too my darling.

I attach a picture of your beloved drum-sticks for you. I could write, not just a letter but a whole book for you but, another time. I hope wherever you are, you’re having fun.

I love you.

A big huge soppy bear hug,
Mamma

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Every day my love is new.

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!!!

Looking back:

2014: Saagar went.
2015: Longing
2016: Longing
2017: Longing

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.

Day 996

 

Tying the knot

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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!

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