Two suitcases, three homes.

Diwali at home with Mum and Dad – after ages!

Nineteen months passed before I could travel again. The uncertainty in the air for all this time meant no one knew when they would see their close family that lived in far-off countries. The news relayed the horrendousness of the situation in India and the 6700 kilometers between them and me made me feel utterly powerless. I would have flown to India at least thrice in this time but I waited for it to become possible.

Then, it did. Si booked my tickets and I felt like I was flying already but coming up to the date of travel, the extra layer of bureaucracy turned me into a tight knot of nerves. This test, that certificate, the other QR code, the timing of this, the reference number of that, one on-line form to be filled on the way out and another on the way back and so on and so forth. I had 2 close friends on speed dial, one in India and the other, a frequent flyer in the UK.

Yet, in the run up to the date of departure, my antacid consumption seriously shot up. In my awful dreams, the faceless uniforms looked at my paper work and shook their heads from side to side. They sent me back home from the airport. They told me I would have to quarantine at the other end in a seedy hotel for 10 days. That would eat up more than half my holiday. I woke up in a bath of sweat.

My two suitcases were mostly packed with chocolates, cheeses, cheese-crackers, sheep’s wool, woolly jumpers, bamboo socks and other such goodies for my folks. I got on the plane at Heathrow and landed at New Delhi safely, utterly grateful to be united with all my loved ones back home. How much I take for granted!

I immersed myself in the everyday life back home- boiling milk, making chapattis, creating rangolis at Diwali, indiscriminately consuming sweets dripping in desi ghee, singing, praying, chatting and overeating at every meal. I set aside my concerns about pending jobs, deadlines for writing assignments, hacked e-mail accounts, consciously locked them away in a clanking steel Godrej cup-board.  

Yes, there was pollution and poverty. There was religious and political bigotry. There was the Right and the Left and the Middle, the Farmer’s protest, the choked Press and the Covid dictats. There was my mind, noticing that Saagar was not physically present in the room. His cousins were messing about, grandma was cooking his favourite chicken curry, Olivia Rodrigo was singing ‘Jealousy Jealousy’ on the Bose speaker, his uncles and aunts were drinking beer and chomping on roasted, salted cashew nuts, talking about the joys of driving on the new highways network and the high price of petrol. We were celebrating our togetherness but he was not here.

In that thought, he became present to me. His essence appeared in the room, as me, my presence, my noticing, my love and my longing. It was subtle, only perceptible at a certain frequency that in now accessible to me. This nameless, formless realm that makes itself known when I pay attention. My real home. Its doors always open.

Before I knew it was time to come home. My two suitcases filled with silk and cotton fabrics, saris ‘borrowed’ from my mother, home-made carrot halwa, cashews and almonds and proper Darjeeling tea.

I am back home from back home now. Rested and reconnected. Refreshed and reassured.

All is well. All is well.

A report and a film.

A report published last month by National Child Mortality Database (NCMD) identifies common characteristics of children and young people who die by suicide between 1st April 2019 and 31st March 2020. It investigates factors associated with these deaths and makes recommendations for policy makers.

Every child or young person who dies by suicide is precious. These deaths are a devastating loss for families and can impact future generations and the wider community. There is a strong need to understand what happened and why, in every case. We must ensure that we learn the lessons we need to, to stop future suicides.

Key Findings:

-Services should be aware that child suicide is not limited to certain groups; rates of suicide were similar across all areas, and regions in England, including urban and rural environments, and across deprived and affluent neighbourhoods.

(No one is immune.)

-62% of children or young people reviewed had suffered a significant personal loss in their life prior to their death, this includes bereavement and “living losses” such as loss of friendships and routine due to moving home or school or other close relationship breakdown.

(Saagar was unable to return to his life at University due to a new diagnosis of a mental illness.)

-Over one third of the children and young people reviewed had never been in contact with mental health services. This suggests that mental health needs or risks were not identified prior to the child or young person’s death.

(Saagar had been in contact with Mental Health Services but they discharged him as soon as he showed signs of improvement. They did not follow him up. His GP was unable to identify his high risk of suicide despite his Depression scores being the worse they could be for at least 4 weeks.)

-16% of children or young people reviewed had a confirmed diagnosis of a neurodevelopmental condition at the time of their death. For example, autism spectrum disorder or attention deficit hyperactivity disorder. This appears higher than found in the general population.

(Saagar did not.)

-Almost a quarter of children and young people reviewed had experienced bullying either face to face or cyber bullying. The majority of reported bullying occurred in school, highlighting the need for clear anti-bullying policies in schools.

(At his Primary school in Belfast, his peers called him ‘Catholic’. He didn’t know what it meant but he knew it was not right. This went on for more than a year before I found out. When I spoke to his class teacher about it, she denied any problem.)

The film ‘1000 days’ tells us about Saagar and what we have learnt from his life and death. I am not sure what or how much the policy makers and service providers have learnt or changed but we have learnt and changed a lot and here we talk about that. The film is presently available on-line at the Waterford Film Festival (Short Programe 6), till the 15th of November at the link below. Please take 20 minutes to watch it if you can. You will learn something too. Each one of us can make a difference.

https://waterfordfilmfestivalonline.com/programs/collection-jlvwfxb8ctq

Not ‘them’ and ‘us’. Just ‘us’.

It has been a dream to be face-to-face, talking about Saagar with the Psychiatric community. In the past 7 years that has not really happened. On Wednesday, the 15th of September, I got as up close as possible with an entire department of roughly 100 psychiatrists and Therapists at differing levels of experience and practice. They were in New York and I was here, in London. The Grand Round was organised by a colleague, Prof Mike Myers, who gave it the title:

‘Losing a Son to Suicide: How One Mother is Opening Hearts and Minds Around the World’

After a cordial ‘meet and greet’, the film ‘1000 days’ was screened. It was followed by complete silence. Same as the previous time it was screened. And the time before. Each time the audience was left speechless.

After a long minute I gently stepped in with the assurance that this was a normal response. I invited questions and comments. I thanked them for the work they do and acknowledged how difficult it is for the profession to deal with such losses. I shared my hope that the film will deepen their insights into the human element of such deaths and the value of forging partnerships with bereaved families.

What followed was a fulsome, creative and holistic exchange of ideas.

“What led you to make this film and share your life in this way?” one young Resident asked me.

“I could only work with what I had and do what was in front of me. When I could write, I wrote. When I could speak, I spoke. When I could learn, I learnt. From the moment I heard the news of Saagar’s death, my only intention was that this must stop. No one should have to suffer the way Saagar did or the way I and his friends do. This film came about because it’s time we recognize that these lives are worth talking about, that the desire to end one’s suffering is a normal human desire and that we all have a role to play.”

Winner – BEST DOCUMENTARY – Swindon Independent International Film Festival
Winner – Brighton Rocks Film Festival – Spirit Award
Winner – Compassion Film Festival Colorado – Reflections of Love People’s Choice Award
Nominee – Morehouse College Human Rights Festival Atlanta (winners yet to be announced) 
Semi Finalist – Gold Coast International Film Festival – New York 
Nominee – Long Story Shorts International Film Festival 

Upcoming festivals where the film can be watched starting 23rd September 2021. Tickets available now.

‘1000 Days’  
Morehouse College Human Rights Film Festival – fosters ongoing discussions about human rights and social and political issues.
September 23 – 25 https://morehousehumanrightsfilmfestival.com/2021-film-guide/

‘1000 Days’ at Women Over Fifty Film Festival:
WOFFF is an inclusive, international film festival celebrating women over 50 in front of, and behind the camera.
25 Sept – 2 Oct – tickets on sale
https://wofff21.eventive.org/films/61379c142c09f100b90ae7c4

Comments:

”Bringing people closer and keeping them deeply connected despite social isolation.”

“Keeping the silk threads of human bonds as strong as ever.”

Now, they are pink.

The day after he died, our door-bell went berserk. This time the same young woman from the local florist, who had been here thrice already, stood at the door again. She had arrived with yet another bouquet of pure white lilies and roses. She stood just outside our front-door with tears rolling down her cheeks. Had this stranger accessed her own sadness or was she feeling mine? I thanked her and tried to console her, wordlessly holding her hands in mine, not believing any of that was happening.

Our eyes met through the fresh white flowers and films of salt water. She didn’t know me or the young man who had died and I didn’t even know her name. But we were flowing in the same river of humanity. Of loss.

For weeks, every room in our house reeked of the sickly-sweet stink of white lilies. I used to like that fragrance before all this but now it screamed ‘DEATH’. It crept into every empty space, crevice and corner. It sneaked under tables and inside locked cup-boards. It suffused my clothes and hair and got into my body like poison.

All these years later, that smell can still hit like an axe on top of my head when I walk past an innocent flower shop.

On my birthday last week, a bunch of Freddie’s flowers arrived unexpectedly. I thought I had cancelled that delivery but it seems I hadn’t. Roses, lilies and gladioli – but this time, they are a pretty pretty pink. Six days on, they are open and smiling and guess what … no heart-breaking fragrance.

Our long-distance relationship is working. Thank you, sweetheart.

One moment on a Friday morning.

Time is a scaffolding. Not the real thing. A construct. A transactional entity. An illusion. A convenience. A cage.

The Time is always Now.

Right now I hear Si pottering in the kitchen downstairs.

Michael, his friend is waiting in his car outside the front door. The engine is whirring, parked slightly to the left of the middle of the road with just enough space for passing cars to slide past.

My second cup of tea is waiting. Steaming.

The sunshine had penetrated many curtains to reach the park across the road.

The wind is gently encouraging the trees to wake up and dance.

The indoor plants watered this morning are feeling fresh. A large green Poinsettia (from last Christmas) on my left and a pink orchid on my right.

The ‘to-do’ list is staring at me from the far side of my table, feeling left-out. My Mind is pulling hard at me, trying to get me out of writing, into ‘doing stuff’. I am watching it. It looks like a toddler yanking at her Mum’s dupatta pleading for attention.

Black and green bins are lined up in tidy rows on the pavement along both sides of our street, waiting to be emptied. Five years ago, when the bin-collection day changed from Tuesday to Friday, I immediately thought I must tell Saagar. Then I remembered. Now, I think of him when I see the bins. I recall us putting the bins out together. In the Now. I feel that memory become a twinge in my chest. Sometimes, it becomes a cloud in both my eyes.

Now, I hold him in my heart on Fridays and every other day. He lives in me. Speaks through me. Sees the world and keeps me calm.

The neighbour’s son’s school bus stops at the same spot every day. He boards it wearing his yellow anorak every day. He sits at the same seat every day – by the window on the left, second row from behind.

The world goes on and I go on with it, carrying you in me. Loving you. Keeping you alive.

Fresh off the boat

Twenty-two years ago, when I first landed in the UK, I arrived as a qualified anaesthetist. I didn’t think of myself as a ‘female doctor’. I did not classify myself as one from the ‘ethnic minorities’. Both of those things were incidental to the fact that there was a job to be done and I could do it well, even if it was in a completely different setting, four and a half thousand miles away from home, at Antrim Area Hospital, Antrim, Northern Ireland. I was nervous but being from an army family, I was accustomed to moving every couple of years from one state of India to another (states as different as Punjab and Bengal), making it my own, learning from a different way of life and moving on to the next. I was sure of my ability to adapt.

My belongings comprised of a family photograph in a silver frame, a suitcase, mostly filled with books and two hundred pounds in cash. From the window of the plane I could see forty shades of green, in a mesmerising patchwork across the fields and hills of Ireland. The sky was the deepest, most startling blue. My heart was up in my throat with the excitement of living and working in a country where everyone was educated (why wouldn’t they be if education was free?)  and well-mannered (why wouldn’t they be if everyone was well looked after by the Government?)

One of the secretaries from the Antrim Area Hospital, Mary, very kindly came to receive me at the airport. The drive from Aldergrove Airport to the hospital was like gliding through a picture postcard. After Delhi, I could fully appreciate the wide golden-green expanses gleaming in the sunshine with not one human being in sight. When I complemented Mary on how gorgeous her country was, she was perplexed, “Really?”

Saagar was 5 years old then. He had stayed back with his dad. My plan was to find my feet and have him join me as soon as possible. I wanted to get my post-graduate exams within one or two years and go back to work in India. In the next few months, as I settled into my job, I acquired a cheap second hand Renault 19, found a family home and an appropriate child-minder. In the tea room of the hospital, the nurses would tell me about their families and ask me about mine. When I told them that I had a 5 years old child back home, they would say, “How could you leave him there?” I didn’t know what to say to that.

I still don’t.

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.