Andretta is a small village in the foothills of the Himalayas. It has been calling to us for the past five years. We’ve been working towards becoming able to take it up on its invitation and finally, we are here.
I return to my country, a stranger. I am not that young lady who left and this land is different from what it was when she left twenty-three years ago. It is noisier, busier and dirtier. People and houses everywhere. The national highways used to run through wide expanses of green and yellow fields but now they are lined with messy shops, workshops and warehouses. Overweight people used to be a rarity but now obesity is commonplace, even in kids and village folk. The forests are thinner and the weather full of surprises. The number of extreme rain events has risen three-fold since the beginning of the last century, possibly due to a warmer Arabian Sea.
It was in the last century that I ventured abroad. The dreams that lived in my eyes then, are a mere story now. Those dreams had to be dashed, so I could wake up. My heart had to be shattered before it could learn to be full. I had to be completely humiliated, before I could be truly humble.
Maybe it was necessary.
Fifty-four days ago, my father walked into a hospital for an operation that he believed would improve his quality of life. He has been unable to leave his hospital bed since. Every time I turn from one side to another in my sleep, I am aware that my father can’t do that. He needs help with nearly every activity of life. He’s aware of his predicament and we all are helpless. This helplessness is an old friend from a few years back. Looking back, it might have been better if he’d not had the operation but we don’t know for sure and it’s too late now. It could be worse. I could be better. It could be different.
I wonder why things happen as and when they do? Is this a question worth asking or is it completely pointless? Some questions are unanswerable no matter how frantically the logical mind looks for answers. There are none.
When I look back I can clearly see we were headed this way. But once again, it has taken the shocking death of 14 years old Molly Russell, to call the big bad media companies to account. They claim to be helpful and in some ways they are but their algorithms aren’t.
A few weeks back I was researching base-ball caps for a piece of writing and now I can’t log on to the internet without someone trying to sell me one such cap. I feel like I am being hounded, sitting alone in my study. It’s all about unabashed, indiscriminate, aggressive marketing. “We’ll give you want we think you want and more”, they scream.
In the last week of January, Ian Russell shook the media world by naming and blaming Instagram directly for making a major contribution to the death of his lovely Molly, by her own hands, in November 2017. Even after she had passed, she was being sent inappropriate images and material in response to her previous search for ‘Depression’ and ‘suicide’. The heart-break was written all over him. The very next week, Instagram was hauled up by the Parliament and its CEO agreed to take responsibility for removing and monitoring harmful content. Google and Facebook are yet to follow suit.
As indicated by this data from the ONS, there has been a worrying rise in female suicides, at either end of the age spectrum. The rise has been consistent in young women, 10 to 29 years of age, since 2013.
Last week, at the National Suicide Prevention Alliance Annual Conference, there was much discussion on the same subject. The minister for Suicide Prevention, Jackie Doyle-Price spoke briefly, trying to convince us that she would do everything she can to tackle the issue and we are watching. Like hawks.
In Delhi, it was simple and sweet. In Belfast, it had to be spoken out slowly and spelt out clearly. Still, it was utterred in all kinds of ways- Segaar, Sags, Sagsy-Wagsy, Saga, Cigar etc. It is, after all, a proper noun. I would think forgivingly, “As long as you speak his name with love, you can say it any which way you like.”
At about 7 years of age, Saagar came home from school one day and casually, asked “Can’t I be called Aran or something?” I felt for him but laughed. What else could I do? I asked him if anyone had commented on his name at school that day. “I have to tell them at least twice and then spell it out and they still get it wrong.”
I told him the story of his name. I was 24 when I got married. My in-laws lived In Chennai. We visited them a few months later and one evening we all went to a place called Besant Nagar beach. That was the first time I saw the ocean. The vision of a dark blue shimmer below meeting a pale blue glow above in a clean, delicate, straight line made everything else disappear. Its calm, its rhythm, its enormity, its subtle dance, its grace and openness pulled me in. All people and conversation faded away and there I was, completely soaked in the bliss of the ocean. My soul soothed. My body relaxed. My eyes quenched. I was in love. In that moment, I knew that if I ever had a son, he would be called, ‘Ocean’ ie. Saagar. I told him he was named Saagar because his heart was as large and as beautiful as the ocean. He smiled and hugged me tight.
Saagar and I needed more stories. They could give us a sense of connection with the characters and each other. Feel their excitement and face their challenges. Make us less alone. Create pictures we could step into as characters. They could show us a map of how to get from here to there. Of how to live in this world. They could make us more human, creating boundaries and arenas within which we could shine. They could make things seem less endless and random. They could take us places we didn’t know we wanted to go. We needed more shared stories.
The train had only a few people in it. It was quietly making its way through the Irish countryside. Callum’s borrowed black suit stank of booze. He’d just finished with his mum’s funeral. He looked at my face and consoled, “When I go in d sun I turn d same colour too. Its awright. We’re all one. I’m tryin’ tell ya. Its awright.”
‘Did your mum have a hard life?’ I asked.
“She grew me up with my grand-moder. My dad died in a car-crash at 27. I never seen’im. I’z a very hard young boy ‘cause I won’t listen to nobody. So, I go from home to DC to prison.”
“Detention Center. My mummy gonna hurt for 20 year. The pain remain. I too weak. I go up and down d hospital for 2 week. Then, she die. Pain is love and love is pain. That’s all that remain. You and me is the same. See, I’m not stupid. It’s awright. I know she always want me be strong. When you feel weak, don’t fall and crumble, ‘cause she don’t want me to stumble. She never leave me. I promise. I never leave her. It’s awright.”
My laptop claims to have at least 8 films on it but for some strange reason, on a train from Birmingham to London, it agreed to play just one, called, ‘The Help’. It’s about the writing of a book compiling the stories of African American maids working in white households in Jackson, Mississippi in the early 1960s. A book about an open ugly secret. About the courage of a few to start talking about it as a mark of protest. About the collective impact of small actions in bringing about big changes.
Yesterday was World Mental Health day and the UK became the first country in the world to announce a minister for Suicide Prevention. The day before yesterday, I learnt that Health Education England are very keen to put measures in place to prevent suicides within medical practitioners. Having been a part of the Suicide Prevention Community for the last 4 years, the one profession that is most conspicuous by its absence is Psychiatrists.
At 2 different meetings, I happened to meet 2 different Consultant Psychiatrists. On hearing Saagar’s story, one of them said he was very sorry but ‘this has been happening for 30 years’. I went blank. I just looked at him. I wonder what the public’s reaction would be if a surgeon would publicly admit that his surgical team has been making the same errors, that have been costing people their lives for 30 years. Yes. These are systemic errors. They are difficult to tackle. But, even today, youngsters like Saagar are dying because of lack of leadership within the specialty of Psychiatry, like they have been for the past 30 years.
The other, extremely prominent and respected Consultant Psychiatrist completely rubbished Mindfulness, Yoga and Meditation, without having tried any of them. He said that all these interventions have side effects. He believed that a Psychiatrist is only meant to attend to the most extreme cases. Their role comes into play only after these 5 have been called upon – parents, schools, GPs, CAMHS and Talking therapies. I am sure he knows that many youngsters die while on the waiting list, without ever getting to see a proper Psychiatrist, once. I am also sure he knows the side effects of psychiatric medications that are offered generously to all and sundry by non-psychiatrists. Lastly, I am sure he also knows how unsupported the GPs feel when faced with patients who are severely mentally unwell due to slow and inefficient response from the secondary services. And, I am sure it’s all down to poor funding. The same excuse that we’ve had for decades gone by and will have for decades to come. How about some imaginative leadership?
As parents, let’s start by saying to our kids in words and actions –
‘You is kind. You is smart. You is important.’
To me, I say – ‘I is kind. I is smart. I is important.’
You could too.
Why? How did we get here?
Why us? How can this be?
Why him? Such a sweet child!
How did it feel to be him at that point?
How did it get that bad?
Why could no one see it?
How could I be so blind to his pain?
Did he try to tell me in code?
Could I not hear his cryptic messages? Why?
Did he hide it? Was he trying to protect me?
Were there clues I missed?
How could all this be happening straight in my line of vision?
Is this a crazy practical joke? Fake news?
Could I just go back and rearrange events like my dressing table?
Did he tell anyone else? His friends? His hair-dresser?
Why did he say nothing to me?
Did he not trust me enough?
Did he think I loved him too much to bear hearing those words?
Did he think I loved him too little?
Did he think I wouldn’t understand? Would I have understood?
Would I have freaked out?
Did he think I’d be better off without him?
Did he have any idea how wrong that could be?
Was it a choice or a complete lack of choice?
How bad was his pain? How unbearable?
I want to stand where he stood.
I want to see what he saw.
I want to feel what he felt.
I want to experience what he experienced.
I want to go back there. NOW!!!
How much love does it take to keep someone alive? Why was mine not enough?
The annual festival of my beastly treacherous demons has begun.
Thank you Autumn.