After many years, things are being taken out of cup-boards and off shelves, turned inside out and properly looked at. Dusty books, clothes, folders, boxes and sachets. Some familiar fragrances are escaping and some old scenes are playing out on the screen of the mind. Bits of stuff slipping out of other stuff and falling to the ground with a clink. Some stuff that was believed to be misplaced is being placed. Some that was believed to be forgotten is being revisited.
A nappy pin. Special feature – A white safety cap to prevent accidental opening up while the baby has his cloth nappy on. Commonly used in India and other developing countries. Original owner: Baby Saagar.
A business card. Special feature – Simplicity. An invitation to music and joy. Original owner: Saagar.
A Crisis Plan. Special features – Not worth two pennies. Highly ineffective. Not accompanied by a conversation. No detail. Not individualised. Not created in partnership with the patient. Not an alive document. Does not mention anything more than ‘self-harm’. Doesn’t tell us what ‘Crisis’ looks like. Doesn’t identify any helpful distractions, activities, friends or family. Doesn’t appear to know the patient, for example, a key fact – does this person have a key worker? Does not express any understanding or compassion.
Commonly used in developed countries.
Oops! The name of the GP surgery is visible. It doesn’t matter. It closed down years ago. We were it’s last few unlucky patients. Owner: Saagar Naresh (1994-2014).
One or two years after Saagar, continuing to live here, in this house was painful. Everything screamed his name – the road from the station to our house that he did not take, our vet, our cat, our dentist, our GP Surgery and pharmacy, our local shops and cafés, our bins, his school, our neighbours, our radio and TV. Everything yelled out his absence.
The thought of moving away filled me with a terrible sense that I would be leaving him behind. As long as I lived here, this would be his home. What if, one day he was to return? I should be here to receive him. I ironed his full-sleeved light brown t-shirt, a set of dark blue Super-dry sports trousers and kept them ready for use. His Vans shoes too, for that same reason. The boring, practical, Virgo, me. I couldn’t have gone anywhere.
Nearly eight years on, I have come to inhabit my body in a way that my home is where I am. I am comfortable here. Now he’s not separate from me. His home is inside my body once again. He lives in me as love. Divine love. It’s not possible for me to leave him behind ever. He goes everywhere with me, as my beating heart, my smile and my tears. We both share a home. His light shines through my eyes and his laughter rings through my chuckles. I can’t be without him no matter where I am. There is no insecurity. I am free and so is he.
Twenty-two years ago, I traveled from New Delhi to London with my eyes full of dreams and a suitcase full of books. Soon, I shall be crossing the oceans in the other direction, heading back with Si, with absolutely nothing to lose.
I never really left. I was always there. At home with my folks. Even when I flew across oceans, a part of me remained at home. The part that refused to leave. The rest of me has been homesick since that day.
The first time I was to leave my Motherland, India, twenty-three years ago, my dad noticed I was close to tears at the airport. He said, “Chin up my dear. Remember who you are and how proud we are of you.”
Two weeks back he had a routine surgery on his neck that has left him unable to breathe adequately for now. He has received all the support he needs in a timely and gentle manner. For a while he was sedated but when he came out of it, the first thing he verbalised on seeing my mum and I was ‘I love you.’
Two days back I left him again. This time in an Intensive Care Unit bed. Bed number 19. I left his doctors, my brothers, my mother and all the extended family in-charge of him and of each other. I left a list of plans, strategies and resources. I left not knowing what happens next. I left as I breathed and meditated and pleaded with the Gods to heal him.
Once again, I see the fragility of human life. I witness people and situations in a constant state of flux, the tide of hope rising and plunging, our uneven shallow breaths and his, our collective helplessness, the tentative stepping forward and standing back, the engagement of distant Healers, the comforting holding and massaging of hands, hours of sitting in air-conditioned rooms and waiting, second-guessing other’s needs, the tender wetting of lips and applying Vaseline, the daily mid-morning updates that set the tone for the day.
Walking purposefully through hospital corridors is something I’ve done a lot of. But this time it’s me who’s walking through them, lost and vacant.
After four weeks, we hope to return home for a longish time. The very thought makes my heart sing. May Mother Nature do its magical, mysterious dance – make things worse and then, make them better again.
The two little lads were inseparable. Saagar and Rohan. They cycled together all evening after school and kicked a ball about for hours. They had dinner at each other’s houses. They created snowmen and played with snowballs together. They even shared a bath every now and then. Luckily, they lived right next to each other and their parents were friends.
At Ulster Hospital in East Belfast, the staff accommodation is a set of six flats. Rohan‘s family lived in the one just below us. His mum, Shruti, was the best grower of indoor plants. A gentle, sweet lady. She was also a doctor but at that time, was not working. Over time our families became close friends and continued to visit each other even after we moved to London and they moved to the north of England. If you ask me to name my oldest friends in the UK, Shruti’s name would be on top.
Eventually Shruti started working in Psychiatry and seemed to enjoy it, even though the exams were a struggle as they are for many of us, when they must fit somewhere in between work, kids, husbands, homes, pets, friends, sleep and homesickness.
When Saagar was diagnosed with Bipolar disorder, I needed to speak with her. I needed her. I asked her by text what time would suit. She said she’s call me after work and she did.
“Hi Shruti. Thanks so much for calling.”
‘No problem. I am driving so we may get cut off. I’ll call you back if that happens.’
As soon as I started speaking it got cut off and she called back and the same thing happened again. And again. And then she didn’t call back.
When Saagar died, she came to see us the very next day with her husband, utterly shocked.
A month later I needed to connect with her again. She said she’d call me back after work. She called while driving. She had to pick someone up from somewhere or drop someone off somewhere. She was on the move. On – Off – On – Off : our phones connected and then rudely disconnected mid-sentence and stayed disconnected for seven years.
Two days back a message arrived from Shruti on Whatsapp saying, “Please join us and bless the couple.” Rohan gets married soon. A nice little electronic invitation to the reception was posted underneath the message. The invitation wasn’t for anyone in particular. It had no names on it. I can’t be entirely sure it was for us.
I am happy for the family and for Rohan. Wishing them all possible happiness, I RSVP’d with apologies for being unable to attend. There’s nothing here and let’s not pretend there is. I felt sad for a little while at this loss of a valued friendship, but not for long. This is an opportunity to let go. Yet again. If there is one thing I want to be skilled at, it is to keep letting go, remembering what the Bard of Avon said – ‘All the world’s a stage, and all the men and women merely players: they have their exits and their entrances …’ I get it.
Two years back, it could not be screened as scheduled. After a long wait, last weekend it was, at Clapham Picture house where Saagar often went with his friends. People came from Leicester, Salford, Cornwall, Cardiff and Birmingham. Some, I had only ever seen on screen. Others, when they were school kids. They brought their sisters, spouses, friends and colleagues. They stayed for hours afterwards, talking about themselves in a way they never had. They fell in love with Saagar’s big brown eyes and mischievous smile. They saw what a treasure had been carelessly lost. Everyone felt something. Many had no words but there was a profusion of overdue hugs all around. Many felt they knew him even though they had never met him. Some introductions were made to link up the leaders from various sectors of society so they could form stronger and safer networks.
That woman in the film was not just me. She spoke for the fifteen families in the UK, who are plunged into this harsh reality every day. More than 6500 every year.
That young man in the film was not just Saagar, but everyone who has ever blamed themselves for their troubles and felt shame for things that have happened to them, hiding behind their beautiful smiles. Unseen. Unheard. Each one who lost their tribe and couldn’t find a way back.
These were not just Saagar’s friends, but all those who are left behind, trying to figure out how this could happen to someone they loved. Wondering what they could have done then and what they can do now.
This film laments a future lost. It mourns silent suffering. It also illuminates a path that appears out of darkness. It also celebrates love and smiles. It also gives us permission to soften, lighten, loosen. It breaks open our hearts so we can hear the unspoken pain that lies behind the mask of another face and our own. It makes us one.
This is what it means to be human. Here, on this beautiful Earth, there is no other. Only us. Not us and ‘them’. Just us.
PS: International film awards: Eight.
‘1000 days’ is made by Me and Thee films for educational purposes. Hence it is not yet freely available on social media. It was screened in the ‘Lived experience’ section at Middlesbrough, for the Hartlepool and Stockton Safeguarding children’s Partnership and South Tees Safeguarding Children’s Partnership Conference on the 12th of July. It made a profound impact on roughly 350 attendees, motivating them to make individual and collective change so as to protect young lives and their happiness. Will keep you posted on the opportunities to watch it. Thank you for your love and support. Please do share any constructive ideas/ thoughts you may have for the film in the comments section.
Meeting old friends for the first time. In at least three dimensions. Sharing a physical space together, not just a bland rectangular screen. Actually holding hands.
“Gosh! You’re for real!”
The sparkling smiles of recognition mixed with disbelief. The hugs offering heart to heart resuscitation and healing. Sitting down side by side on the sofa, sharing stories, tea and cake.
A year ago, this could have been fiction but last weekend it was fact. While volunteering at a retreat for Bereaved parents hosted by The Compassionate Friends, we finally met people we’ve only ever seen on Zoom. It was held at the simple and serene Woodbrooke Centre, a Georgian manor house in Selly Oak, Birmingham with tall trees, beautiful flower beds and a family of geese perambulating the grounds, intermittently honking. It is a Quaker centre and has a poster in the main foyer which reads “Nameless helping the Nameless”.
The garden in front of the main house has a labyrinth mowed into it. Early on Saturday morning, birds were singing and the light was inviting me into the open. I decided to walk bare feet into the center of the labyrinth. I took my shoes and socks off at the edge of the circle. As soon as I started walking, it turned into an extremely mindful experience as the ground was littered with geese droppings.
The silence in that place was sweet and the views a treat. We talked about the importance of finding meaning. We shared the joys and challenges of taking the inward road. We watched a film and sang together. We wrote from our hearts and created pretty little candle holders for our kids from jam jars at the crafts table. We cried and laughed, reassured that in this company, it was completely acceptable to do both, sometimes simultaneously.
A pleasant exchange. Giving and receiving with compassion. Understanding. Belonging. Learning. Holding the utter magnificence of life in one hand and the absolute devastation in another. That’s what this game is all about, I guess.
I still hear the key turning in the door from the outside and you stepping in. Can you believe it? I still see your face, darkened by the sun. Dressed in your cricket whites, you drag your massive cricket-bag-on-wheels behind you by your left arm.
“Did you take the sun-screen with you?” I ask.
“Yes, it’s in the bag.”
“Did you actually put it on?’
“Mamma, I’m hungry.”
I still wait for you to join us for dinner. I cook the foods you like, especially on your birthday: spinach-paneer for mains, chocolate mousse for dessert. I wonder what you’d be doing in this realm if you were here. Job? Girl-friend? How silly! Isn’t it? I can’t help it. It’s involuntary. It’s got something to do with the heart. With longing. With missing. With love. It’s not supposed to make sense. You would have had a good old chuckle at my expense if you were here. But you are not and I am. How random is that?
I still remember the first time I felt you elbow-ing or knee-ing me from inside my tummy, as if we had an inside joke between us. I remember holding all three kilos of you in my arms for the first time. I couldn’t believe you were for real. You were all mine. Now my arms ache with emptiness. Is this real?
Do you miss me sometimes?
Happy birthday my darling.
It will be the past
And we’ll live there together.
Not as it was to live
But as it is remembered.
It will be the past.
We’ll all go back together.
Everyone we ever loved,
And lost, and must remember.
It will be the past.
And it will last forever.
– A poem by Patrick Phillips, on the New York subway.
(“Ghar aa” is a Hindi phrase that means “Come home”)
I didn’t light his candle today. Not because I forgot. But I just couldn’t be bothered. He left without saying bye. I know it’s silly to bring this up now, after so many years. He needed to do whatever it was he needed to do. He needed to go. I understand. But the missing makes my heart crumble again and yet again. How is it possible to keep going after its smashed so many times? It feels like the old yellow rubber duck in his bath, being stamped heavily upon, by a topless angry Arnold Swarzenegger wearing big black military trousers and boots. What is this thing that pretends to drum in my chest, tattered and torn?
He broke the rule. Saying good-night was our ritual for many years. After settling him in his bed, I religiously kissed him on his chin, both his cheeks, first left and then the right, his closed eyes, first the left and then the right and then, once on his forehead. He put his little arms around my neck and we both held each other for a short while before I switched off the light and went to my room. We loved it and slept peacefully.
He didn’t respect our little rule. Maybe he couldn’t. But, I deserved at least, a proper good bye. But then, can anyone truly know who deserves what?
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.