(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.
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.
In 1999, I was 9000 miles from home, building a new life, working 80-100 hours a week looking after the sick. Today I had driven my new, blue, second hand Renault 19 into town for the very first time. After much worry, I had thankfully managed to find the right place to park. It was a Saturday morning in November, cold and almost too bright for Belfast, famous for its ‘jeans and polo-necks’ season all year round. I had my black boots, black denims and a light blue high-necked jumper on. I was looking for the Thomas Cook office. Couldn’t wait to buy plane tickets to go home after slogging all alone in a foreign land for nearly 5 months. My ears were thirsting to hear my beloved Hindi language again and my tongue was dying to speak it with my loved ones. My heart ached for home.
I couldn’t find the wretched office. It was 11 am. I was on a street called ‘Donegall place’. People walked about happily shopping, talking, laughing and sipping their portable drinks. They smiled and chatted as they strolled about with their friends and family. A portly middle aged man walked alone on the pavement with a newspaper tucked under his left armpit. I gently approached him for directions. Even before I had spoken, he retracted, scowled and spat, “I have nothing to give you.”
In that moment, every cell in my body wished to disappear.
Born and brought up mainly in the plains of North India, my geographical vocabulary is meagre. The feeling of being at the toe of a glacier is a thousand times more awe-inspiring than looking at its picture. The expansive agelessness of it! It goes back thousands of years, slowly and steadily, giving. It makes me feel small, as I am reminded of the angst on the railway platforms in London when the 7.12 is delayed by 4 minutes. Time adorns a different cape in the white light of the glaciers.
The debris revealed on the sides and the toe of a glacier as it recedes forms landmasses called (lateral and terminal respectively) moraines. Often there is a bowl of icy water in the centre as if artfully crafted by a deft potter.
The glaciers have their own weather system. A breeze blows downhill over them cooled by the icefield. It is denser and heavier than the air it replaces. These winds have the staccato name of ‘katabatic’ winds.
The Athabasca Glacier spills from the Columbia Icefield, flowing over three giant bedrock steps like a massive slow-moving waterfall. Although glacial ice is solid, it deforms and flows under pressure, moving like a thick pudding. Gravity and the weight of the ice pulls it downhill towards the valley.
And the valley offers splendour and beauty in abundance.
It was like being on a film set at the Okotoks Pro Rodeo Competition in Calgary, Canada, yesterday.
Hamburgers and pierogis (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Pierogi) for lunch. Cowboy hats and boots. Broad leather belts with huge shiny metallic buckles, checked shirts and jeans all around. A swagger in their gait and a palpable pride in their country life, closely interwoven with that of their animals.
The youngest contestants were no more than 5 years old. Their event was sheep riding (mutton busting). Little boys and girls emerged from the shoot with their little helmets on, hanging on to the sheep coat with all they have, like little monkeys. Within seconds they tumbled off, on to the soft earth. Some dragged on, holding on to the running sheep for a few seconds longer. The rodeo-clown, with an orange shirt with white polka dots gave them all a high-five and got the audience to give each of them a big round of applause. One couldn’t help but admire their bravado.
The bareback riding was shocking to watch live and up close. The core muscles of the riders must be as strong as a slab of cement, their spines, rods of steel and their constitution unshakable. Other events of the day were saddle-bronc, calf tie-down roping, steer wrestling, bull riding, wild pony racing and barrel racing – things I didn’t know existed. The synchronicity between man and beast on full display. Being celebrated and honoured. A strong community with no pretensions or misapprehensions.
This morning I found a non-electric water-boiling kettle in the kitchen. I filled up just enough water for 2 cups of tea and placed it on the electric hob. It took its own sweet time to come to a boil. Such a refreshing change from the pace of life in London. I had time and space to appreciate the blue of the sky, the rustle of the wind, the song of the birds and the longing in my heart that flows through every cell of my body, every second of every day and yet I smile and enjoy this ‘here and now’.
To up and move the household every couple of years.
To tear away from the warmth of neighbours and friends.
To bleed quietly inside.
To have no say in matters within and without.
It was normal.
To have a new set of chairs, beds, books and windows.
To be the ‘new girl’ in the new uniform in the new school, again.
To prove oneself again.
To pick up ‘the way we do things here’ again.
To keep on keeping the balance despite shearing winds.
It was normal.
To make a home out of any old house.
To know there was only that much money.
To have aromatic homemade meals and smart hand-stitched clothes.
To extract as much joy and laughter as life allowed.
To create some more out of nothing.
To sometimes see grown-ups stressed.
To find blame and shame scattered around like unclaimed marbles.
To be expected to shine at all times.
It was normal.
To not know names of feelings.
To muddle along with them.
Mostly hide them in cotton balls of confusion.
To have no voice except silence.
To shed tears in dark corners.
To feel like a lone tree in a desert.
It was normal.
They said they’d been having bizarre weather all through last year. The evidence was all around. Fog and mist in the middle of June. Temperatures dipping to low teens – in central Portugal?
Last June was completely different – temperatures of 38 degrees, winds of 80-90 kms/hr and entire hillsides covered in orange and yellow flames, fast expanding in all directions. And again in August and October 2017- covering a total of at least 560,000 hectares, holding at least 2000 people hostage, leaving homes and cars charred, livelihoods ruined, claiming at least 100 lives and leaving many others burnt and traumatised. Leaving villages in deathly silence for months.For a country that makes up just 2 percent of the continent’s landmass, it made up 60 percent of its wildfires. I vaguely remember it being mentioned on BBC.
No one notices a forest until it starts to burn. Thereafter no one can control it. Climate change, Eucalyptus trees grown for commercial use, arsonists, poor management of forests, poor warning systems and a huge exodus of the country’s youth – all added up.
We were in a sweet little village called Tabua on River Alva. The roads were fantastic and traffic the lightest I’ve seen in a very long time. The hillsides were magnificent but covered in black stumps. It must have been a frightening sight when alight. Many locals couldn’t bring themselves to talk about it.
Come spring and tender fresh greenness has started to appear on grey-black, seemingly dead tree trunks. There is regrowth. There is life. The simplicity of existence and people in Portugal makes me question what ‘quality of life’ really means. We returned home with memories, figs, honey, almonds and hope.
We know we are in Holland when the study table in our hotel room has a puncture repair kit in the drawer. Looking out of the window I see people riding their bikes with great abandon – simultaneously texting, chomping at an ice-cream, carrying a big bunch of flowers and chatting with a friend riding a bike in parallel. Pedestrians and automobiles are invisible to them. Bi-cycles go where they like, when they like. Anytime of day or night they shoot out of blind corners and come barging at us from all sides. Walking the cobbled streets as unsure visitor, we feel like an inconvenience to these bikers. I seriously envy them their security, their space and their freedom!
A white van drives past us with ‘Authentic smaak’ emblazoned across the side in dark green. It brings amusement to our faces. Does this mean what we think it does? We guess it refers to one of the substances that Amsterdam is well known for. We later discover the innocent local meaning of ‘smaak’ is ‘taste’.
‘Dutch masters at the Hermitage‘ is an enlightening exhibition. We got up-close to some of Rembrandt’s great works. The portrait of an old jew from 1654 came out a clear winner in my eyes. The light on his hands and face, the fineness of the wrinkles, the stories hidden in them, the detail on the hands, the use of space, the aura of wisdom …
Our hotel lobby was dominated by a large portrait of a mother and child. Painter unknown. Dates unknown.
It softened my heart. It spoke to me. It took me right back into the past. It made me sad in the most delightful way. It brought a tear to my eye and a smile to my lips. I didn’t need reminding that my very last holiday with Saagar, in April 2014 was to this very town, Amsterdam. He is with me, wherever I go. Our children never go too far away. They are in our DNA as much as we are in their’s.