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.  

Visiting my adolescence

Innkeeper's wife

(The mean, very mean wife of the inn-keeper. Nativity play 1983. CMC Ludhiana. India.)

Once upon a time I used to be a kid. A bright and happy kid. I nearly forgot that girl. She used to be fun. She loved singing, dancing and play-acting. She had thick black, unusually curly, short hair. She laughed easily and played harmless pranks. She listened to music on the radio with such ardour that her day was planned around the timings of her favourite programmes on the Urdu service of All India Radio. The last few pages of all her notebooks were filled with scribbled lyrics of songs written at speed to keep pace with them as they played on the old Murphy which was a part of her mother’s dowry. Then she neatly transcribed the messy song-words from the back pages of her notebooks onto a special red diary which was her treasure.

A few months back I accepted an invitation from my alma mater, Christian Medical College, Ludhiana, India.  This is where I trained to be a doctor and an anaesthetist, nearly 30 years ago. They requested me to run a Mental Health workshop for about 70 medical students and make a Keynote address at the World Junior Medical Congress they were hosting in early April.

While preparing my lecture, I dug up a few old pictures. They flew me back in time. I saw what I looked like when I was Saagar’s age. It was a strange juxtaposition. So much had changed. Oh, that heart-breaking innocence! The stars in my eyes shone so bright, they nearly blinded me. Who was this lovely girl? Where is she now? She has walked a long way and formed a big circle. She is back where she started, working with what she has – her Love, her Grief and her Self.

MH Workshop

The workshop was four and a half hours long. The sharing was powerful, the enthusiasm infectious. The learning for all of us was invaluable. It was fun! We sang and we danced. We worked and we played. It was just like the old times. Saagar was there. He was smiling his crooked smile.

“There is nothing in the world, I venture to say, that would so effectively help one to survive even the worst conditions as the knowledge that there is a meaning in one’s life.” – Victor Frankl.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

A song and a prayer.

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Once upon a time I used to sing. My friends had to beg me to stop. In 1987, a whole bunch of us, medical students traveled from Ludhiana to Delhi to participate in the Annual music festival at All India Institute of Medical Sciences, called ‘Pulse’. It was just the perfect time for us to be and sing together. We belted out song after song for the entire duration of the train ride. Some onlookers were entertained and others annoyed but we were oblivious to them all. By the end of the journey, we were hoarse. I had no regrets that on the day of the competition, I sounded nothing like myself. I had had a great time.

I grew up in a house filled with music. The radio used to be on before we woke up in the morning and we followed the charts closely every friday on ‘Binaca Geet Mala’. My parents loved Hindi film music which by default is the most popular music in India. My mother has an uncanny ability to remember lyrics that I seem to have inherited. The popularity of the music of a film determines its box-office success. Our playback singers are worshiped like Gods.

Saagar found Hindi film music b-o-r-i-n-g!!! He thought it lacked imagination and the lyrics were always about romantic love. True. Yet, he accompanied me in my singing whenever I asked him. Despite the fact he didn’t know the songs, he played the drums or Djembe along to perfection. The boy had a solid sense of rhythm. After losing Saagar, I lost my songs. Some, I just couldn’t bear to listen to. Others, I could sometimes play for myself and occasionally enjoy. But singing was undoable. My tears would come tumbling in waves if I attempted it. For more than 4 years, I mostly stuck with words, Radio 4 and the random weekly music of someone else’s choice on Desert Island Discs. For the last 2 years, Si and I would dance to some of our favourites on Saturday evenings, while pottering around in the kitchen.

A few months ago, some songs came to me. They were devotional and Sufi. Initially, they came with tears of love, sorrow and gratitude. With practice, the tears learnt to hide. My friends accompanied me – Katie on viola and Rajesh on the tabla and finally, last week I gathered the confidence to sing in public after 5 years. It was an exercise in equanimity. It didn’t matter how melodious or off-key the song was, it was an offering from the heart. It was a way of loving and honouring myself, Saagar,  friends and families present and all the lovely people they had lost to suicide. It was a new beginning.

English translation of O Paalan hare

Oh, nurturing Lord, beyond description and beyond all,
Except you, we have no one
Ease our difficulties, oh God

Except you, we have no one
You are our only supporter
You are our only protector
Except you, we have no one.

It is you who has filled the moon with moonlight
The sun’s brightness is from you
The sky is content, you have given it stars
God, if you don’t adorn this life
Then who will adorn it?

Oh, nurturing Lord, beyond description and beyond all,
Except you, we have no one.

If you listen, Lord, I shall make a plea
Give patience to the sorrowful
So that they never give in to their sorrow
Provide the powerless with protection
So that the powerless can live happily.

Provide our devotion with strength.
Provide our devotion with strength.

As you are the master of the world, please hear this plea
There is darkness in our path
Shine your divine light for us.

Oh, nurturing Lord, beyond description and beyond all,
Except you, we have no one
Ease our difficulties, oh God
Except you, we have no one.

Lyricist: Javed Akhtar
Composer: A R Rahman
Film: Lagaan

Youtube: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=arF8gWNFyZo

Recording: http://we.tl/t-npGeikz9QP?src=dnl

Venue: St Martin in the Fields. 9th March 2019.

Big thanks to Mary Kennedy for recording the song and to David Mosse for organising the Time to Talk service.

Just beneath the skin

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Dissecting a human body is an enlightening experience. At 17, in the first year of medical school, it was a shock to enter the massive Anatomy hall with 12 metallic rectangular tables, each occupied by a horizontal naked human body covered with a white cotton sheet. 4 students in alphabetical order, to a table/ body. All different but more or less the same, students and bodies. Mine was a dark skinned, muscular young man in his thirties. I wondered how he had landed up on this table in the heart of Punjab when he clearly belonged somewhere else. I wondered what his story was.

The air was suffused with a stench of formaline. It flew through the roof of my nose straight into the recesses of my gray matter to form unerasable maps. It stung the eyes so hard, they wept. I never thought it was possible to get used to that repugnant odour but by the end of the first week, it was a ‘normal’ part of me.

‘Upper limb and breast’ was the first Lesson. Anterior, posterior, medial, dorsal, ventral lateral, proximal, distal were some of the new words added to my word bank. When I took the scalpel to my man’s skin, I flinched. It was an invasion. A sacrifice. An offering. A permission. I wanted to apologise to him and thank him. As I carefully peeled the first layer off, a pale yellow silky layer unravelled itself. I peeked at the next table and it was the same. And the next and the next. Men and women, old and young, squat and fit, brown and black. Whatever on the outside, were the same just underneath. The other thing they had in common was that they were all dead.

It’s the same with us. Whatever we are on the outside, we’re the same just underneath. We cry the same salty tears, we feel the same love for our kids, we yawn and sneeze and hiccup and breath the same way. We all are distinct and yet, more or less the same. Our innermost desire is only to be loved and understood. And one day we will all be dead.

At present, with the identity politics at its peak, my kind, gentle and fairness-loving husband is made to belong to only one box, that of a straight middle-aged white man. Yet, he is so much more than that. Just as black people are so much more than just black and homosexuals are so much more than just that. And Saagar was so much more than just a brown young man.

Underneath all that they all are just human. We have the privilege of living on the most gorgeous planet. Our numbers are higher than ever before and our potential as a race is the highest it has ever been. Yet, we cannot find one suitable host for the Oscars Award ceremony. Because we have paralysed ourselves. We cannot allow people the smallest past or future mistakes and mis-judgements. The amount of energy spent on getting offended or apologising for mistakenly causing offence is frightfully high.

At a time when we need more cohesion between humans than ever before, we are building divisions all over the world – us and them. Be it ‘the wall’ in America or Brexit or Islamophobia. We need bridges, not walls. We need to see ourselves in others – vulnerable and tough at the same time.

Can we make an effort to find the sameness between us? I may be a hippie and you a hipster but we are not that different. Let’s talk.

Molly. Oh Molly!

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.

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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.

 

No more; no less.

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It occurred to Pooh 🐻 and Piglet 🐷 that they hadn’t heard from Eeyore for several days, so they put on their hats 🎩 and coats 🧥 and trotted across the Hundred Acre Wood🌲 to Eeyore’s stick house. Inside the house was Eeyore.

“Hello Eeyore,” said Pooh.

“Hello Pooh. 🐻 Hello Piglet 🐷” said Eeyore, in a Glum Sounding Voice

“We just thought we’d check in on you,” said Piglet, “because we hadn’t heard from you, and so we wanted to know if you were okay.”

Eeyore was silent for a moment. “Am I okay?” he asked, eventually. “Well, I don’t know, to be honest. Are any of us really okay? That’s what I ask myself. All I can tell you, Pooh and Piglet, is that right now I feel really rather Sad, and Alone, and Not Much Fun To Be Around At All.

Which is why I haven’t bothered you. Because you wouldn’t want to waste your time hanging out with someone who is Sad, and Alone, and Not Much Fun To Be Around At All, would you now.”

Pooh looked and Piglet, and Piglet looked at Pooh, and they both sat down, one on either side of Eeyore in his stick house.

Eeyore looked at them in surprise. “What are you doing?”

“We’re sitting here with you,” said Pooh, “because we are your friends. And true friends don’t care if someone is feeling Sad, or Alone, or Not Much Fun To Be Around At All. True friends are there for you anyway. And so here we are.” 💜💚

“Oh,” said Eeyore. “Oh.” And the three of them sat there in silence, and while Pooh and Piglet said nothing at all; somehow, almost imperceptibly, Eeyore started to feel a very tiny little bit better. 🥰

Because Pooh and Piglet were There.
No more; no less.

A.A.Milne
E.H.Shepard

Andy’s dilemma. Errm … decision.

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On Friday, the first thing I heard on radio was Andy in tears. It was also the last thing on TV before going to bed. A proud Scotsman, 31 years of age, Andy announces his retirement after a scintillating career in tennis and a long fight with an injury to his right hip. Tall and athletic, in a deep blue t-shirt, seated in front of a dark grey screen covered in contrasting logos, he faced the press. Eyes lowered. Head bent. His left hand trying to cover his face in the guise of adjusting the brim of his baseball cap.
“Ermm. Not great.” (Nods, looks sideways, down and to his right. Nods twice to himself. Big sigh.)
“Ermm…”(Comes close to breaking down and leaves his seat. Walks off with head steeply bent forward.)
Comes back. Sits down. Starts again.
“Sorry.” (Small cough)
“Ermm. Yeah. So, not … not feeling good.
Obviously been struggling, been struggling for a long time.
I can still play to a level. Not a level I’m happy playing at. But also, it’s not just that the pain is … too much really. I don’t want to keep playing that way. You know, I spoke to my team and I told them that, you know, I can’t … I can’t keep doing this and I needed to have an endpoint. I told my team that I needed to get through this till Wimbledon. That’s where … where I’d like to stop.
Ermm … stop playing. (Visibly steels himself as he says this).
Ermm … but also not certain I’m able to do that. (Shakes his head and bends it further forward)
Ya. Ya. I think there’s a chance of that for sure. (Rubs his right eye. Purses his lips.)
Ermm. Ya. There’s … sure, because like I said I am not sure … not sure I’m able to … to play through the pain you know. For another 4-5 months. Ermm. I have an option to, you know, have another operation which you know is … you know a little bit more … more kind of severe than what I’ve had before and having my hip resurfaced will allow me to have a better quality of life and be out of pain and that’s something I’m seriously considering right now. There’s obviously no guarantees. The reason for having an operation like that is not to return to professional sport. It’s just for a better quality of life. Yeah. For myself mainly. (Pulls the brim of his hat forward). There’s lots of little things. I mean, you guys see me running around the tennis court and walking around in between points and it obviously doesn’t look good and doesn’t look comfortable but you know there’s little things like day to day, that are also a struggle, and ya, it’d be nice to be able to do them without any pain. Putting your shoes on, socks on – things like that. Having the limitations and the pain is not allowing me to enjoy competing or training or any of the stuff that (shrugs) I love about tennis.
Nothing helps. You’re in lots and lots of pain. You can’t do what you want to do, what you love doing. I can do it but it’s not fun. I’m not enjoying doing it. So … I mean. That’s what I’ve done. Tried to deal with it, talk about it. Ermm. But none of that makes my hip feel better unfortunately. I wish it did, cause if it did, I’d be feeling brilliant just now but it doesn’t. So…” (Gets up and leaves.)

His deep sense of loss, confusion, pain and vulnerability came across clearly. It’s probably one of the hardest decisions of his life. I visualise a society, our society, creating space for such expression, not just for physical but also emotional pain. It’s going to be a tricky transition. I am sure he has the required support network in place. Good luck Andy!

Ref: https://www.theguardian.com/sport/2019/jan/13/andy-murray-tennis-retirement