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.
The concert had just finished and the hall was semi-lit. A dance recital entitled ‘Hope’ had coaxed everyone’s feelings up from deep within to just under the surface, like fish in an aquarium hovering at the top for specks of food. The main supporter of the show was the Patel family who had recently lost one of its eminent members. He was survived by his young wife and three kids. The soft thuds of seats folding up, the hiss of people whispering in gentle tones and trudging in small steps towards the exit filled the warm air.
I approached the 17 years old Patel boy, one of the sons. He appeared shrunken. Contracted, like an empty plastic water bottle, after a flight.
“How’re you doing?”
‘Not bad. Thanks’ he stated, unconvinced, looking downwards and sideways.
“Did you enjoy that?”
‘Yes. T’was nice.’ Still expressionless.
“How’s mum doing?”
‘We went for a safari to Kenya. That was good’ he looked up a little.
“I am sorry for your loss. I hope you’re taking good care of yourself.”
‘Yes. Thanks’. Mortified.
“Can I give you a hug?”
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.”
He loved the company of older boys. The younger ones annoyed him. His favourite thing as a toddler was to stand in super-big shoes belonging to the older men in the family. He waded around the house in them. He happily posed for the camera with a toothy grin, looking up with his twinkling eyes.
He couldn’t wait to grow up. As a 5 year old, he would sit studiously at the dining table and squiggle pages of nonsense words on a writing pad, claiming seriously, ”I am doing office work.”
About a year later, one Sunday I was on call. We were driving to his child-minder’s house at 7 am. There was no traffic at all. All of Belfast was asleep. I said to him, “Look Saagar, it’s so unfair. Everyone is resting today and I have to go to work.” After a moment’s thought he said, “But Mamma, you’re a good girl.”
One summer evening, he had been playing outside with his friends for a couple of hours. We lived in the hospital accommodation which was a block of 6 flats surrounded by green grounds and tall trees, a safe distance away from the road. At dinner time, he said he wasn’t hungry as he had had snacks at one of the neighbours. I had prepared dinner and had been waiting to have it with him. I tried to coax him to eat just a little bit. But he didn’t want to. I persisted with my efforts, making up stuff like, he would get bad dreams if he didn’t have a proper meal before bed. After a while he sat me down and said, “Mamma, when you are not hungry, do I force you to eat?”
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.
He sits on a bench in Borough market with one of his friends who gets up and goes to get a drink. My heart takes a giant leap. Si is with me. He calls out his name and he beams his trademark squinty smile of recognition at him. He stands up. They shake hands like old mates. My eyes fixate on his face like those of a mad woman. His eye-lashes are not as thick as before. Everything else is the same. I recognise his off-green t-shirt that he lived in. I can’t hold back. My fingertips explore his shoulders without his permission. He doesn’t seem to notice. He’s definitely real. I can touch him. He raises his left arm to rearrange his hair the way he does. He pinches the front of his t-shirt between his right thumb and index finger like he does. Either he can’t see me or he’s letting me do my thing. He’s talking to Si.
“The guys in grey suits wrote to us in first year at Uni. All the students on the Arabic course got the invitation.”
‘You didn’t say anything.’
‘No. They told us not to. They offered us jobs.’
‘Exciting. After the second year at Uni I thought I’d take it up.’
‘It was fun but then … 4 years was enough.’
“So, is this for good?”
‘Yup. For now.’
“Good to see you man.”
‘Yeah. And you. Great to be back. Argentinian Empanadas. I remember those.’
I am still invisible to him. We used to buy empanadas together. Beef ones for him and Spinach and ricotta for me. My finger tips are still confirming reality. He has been working out. I can tell. I want to check his tattoo but that would be too bold. I want to look for the scars on his left forearm but my eyes cling to his thick black brow, his slightly dry lips, his careless stubble. Their thirst cannot be quenched. My ears clasp his voice, his breath. Every word, a harmony. He is here. His words are real. He’s been hiding all this while, working with some kind of a Secret Service. He looks like a British Indian James Bond. But he still hasn’t noticed me and it’s ok.
The tension in my arms lessens as more and more confirmatory signals feed into my brain. My heart is doing somersaults like he did when he was 6. My eyes are so wide, they can take the whole world in.
These worlds, like multi-coloured balls in a kid’s play pen in Ikea overlap, intersect, collide, clash and merge constantly. They clang as if at VT station, Mumbai at 8 am on a Monday morning.
At the core of these spheres is a mush of thoughts, words, impressions and feelings, ground into a thick viscous treacle. At their margins are bright green woods.
I live in the shifting woods that border these globes. These borderlands are safe. Nothing can be taken away from me here. If one world vanishes, I jump onto another. All of them are home. They tumble along and slosh about merrily in a pool of love, inside and outside of me.
Sanity & Insanity
Life & Death
Reality & Illusion
I have six homes.
A 4 minute conversation, Si and I : The Listening Project on BBC Radio 4 (19th Sept 2018)
I-Player (only available in the UK)https://www.bbc.co.uk/radio/play/b0bk1fc0