Priyo Bandhu (Dear Friend) is a Bengali audio play I love. It tells the story of the friendship and love between Joyeeta (Nima Rahman) and Arnab (Anjan Dutta), through their correspondence, starting with silly notes passed in class between schoolchildren, then as eagerly awaited and deeply cherished letters bridging the gaps of space, class and experience between them as they navigate the choppy seas of young adulthood, responsibilities and relationships. I was listening to one of Parashpathar’s many beautifully nostalgic songs from the play today, and one episode was brought back to me in stark context.

Joyeeta is going through a bout of depression. Her husband takes her to see a psychiatrist, who finds nothing wrong with her, at least nothing that having a child won’t solve. She reacts with outrage, as I would, as almost any woman would in her situation. Now you may argue that this is fiction, and no one says things like that any more, but I could tell you stories from real life, and not just from India.

I am not saying that the fictional anecdote above is typical of what passes for psychiatry in India. I have been treated by two psychiatrists and seen one clinical psychologist for CBT in India, and they were excellent, professional to a T (to contrast the above story, one of the doctors ended our first consultation advising me not to make any major decisions for a while), and did me a world of good. But sometimes, when I hear of other peoples’ experiences,  I think I have been lucky.

There is one way in which I know I have been extremely lucky. In that I got professional help for depression at all. Because my family are educated and well-to-do and live in an urban area, I was exposed to enough information to be convinced that depression is a medical disorder, not a character flaw, and when my life got bad enough, I had enough sense of self-preservation to ask for help. And I got it, and there are no words to express how thankful I am for that.

But I am in a tiny minority. According to Govt. of India statistics and estimates, 1 in 5 people in India live with a common or serious mental illness, requiring professional help. In a country of more than a billion people, we have about 5000 qualified mental health professionals. That includes psychiatrists, clinical psychologists, psychiatric social workers and psychiatric nurses, concentrated mostly in urban areas. In fact, there are more Indian-trained psychiatrists practicing abroad than in India. Treatment gaps are huge. Upto 50% in case of severe illness, and 90% in case of common mental illnesses. And in areas and demographics with lack of access to proper health care, people resort to faith healing and other quackery, with no effect at best, and sometimes serious negative effect.

Awareness of mental health issues is worse. There is significant stigma attached to anything to do with mental health, from seeing a psychiatrist to talking about ones experiences, in public, or within ones social, professional and even family circles. This needs to change. And that is why I am writing this, intending this to be read by everyone I know, and maybe even some people I don’t know, despite all my apprehensions, despite other extremely pressing demands on my time right now.

Depression kills. Literally. Depression is a contributing factor to deteriorating physical health, leading to death, in the elderly. And India has one of the worst rates of depression in the world. It’s not just the elderly. Suicide is the second-most common cause of death among people aged 15 to 29 in India. I do not think I know a single person on whose life suicide has not cast a shadow.  We need to act.

Helplines help. A sympathetic, non-judgmental stranger at the other end of the line can be easier to talk to than friends and family. All such services tell the same story, one of under-funding and under-staffing. We can change this, by volunteering and/or donating. We can also combat the stigma around these issues, by speaking out about our experiences. We can encourage our loved ones to seek help when they seem to need it.

Mental health is real health. No one asks their friends why they have diabetes, and are they sure they’re not imagining it, or tell their family members to fight cancer with will power and prayer alone. Yet, when it comes to mood disorders and depression, well-intended, yet completely useless advice is the order of the day. We could educate ourselves on how to be effectively supportive, when people we know are facing mental illnesses.

There has to be a middle ground between airily brushing away someone’s concerns and telling them they are fine, and treating every acquaintance who seems a bit sad like a suicide-risk. We need to learn how to find it and stay in it, for sensitivity can be learned. You never know, but if you get a chance to directly or indirectly cause one person to hang on, for just a little longer, for tomorrow may be better, then you may be saving their life.

I am linking to some articles and resources which I hope will be of help. Please pass along anything that could be added to this.

And please pass this on to anyone you wish to. You don’t know where and how it may be useful.

Articles and blog posts:

http://www.mindsfoundation.org/what-is-mental-illness/india/

http://blogs.wsj.com/indiarealtime/2013/06/11/indias-suicide-problem/

http://elizabethexploresindia.wordpress.com/2013/04/12/large-treatment-gap-in-the-world-of-mental-health-in-india/

http://www.dnaindia.com/health/1848694/report-finally-a-national-survey-on-mental-health-disorders-in-india

A list of helplines you can help:

http://www.maithrikochi.org/related_organisations.htm

 

For R.

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Growing up is fun.
Watching your young grow up, not so much.
When you leave the nest,
It’s all an adventure. Excitingly full of potentialities.
But every flap of the young bird’s wings
Claws, wrenching at her mother’s heart.

Earlier today, we put my little sister on a train. She is off to start her first job. She has lived at home these past 21 years, apart from being away at chess tournaments and coaching camps. Watching her leave was one of the hardest things I’ve ever done, and I’ve been living away from home since I was 18.

She looked so small and young and frail, standing at the door of the coach, waving at us, her eyes brimming over. Back at home, everything reminds me of her, the wreckage of her packing, the doll she says scares her in the dark. I have to look away from the photographs on the wall, and hide in my work to keep from crying.

And I cannot say any of the sentimental things I want to say out loud, or I’ll have two weeping parents on my hands.

Having younger siblings is an excellent lesson in being kinder to your parents.

I know I had stopped blogging.

That’s probably because I live in Ireland these days. And over here when you have something to say, you tell your mates over pints in the pub.

But I may blog again, occasionally. I miss writing.

I have a new story up here. It’s called “Girl on a bridge”.

If I am any judge of my work, this is the best thing I have ever written, and I’m quite happy with it. Please let me know what you think.

The Witch’s Ward, that’s who. She lived in a cream-coloured castle surrounded by a brown moat, for quite some time, walking around in brown Georgia font… Then she ran away.

A couple of years later, home called, and she came back, but home had changed. All those words she had left had been lost. She was willing to pay for abandoning them.

Then the elf wrote to her, “I have your lost words…” He also told her of this place, where she could come and live… [Running out of euphemisms, better stop this.]

So here I am, and I think I’m here to stay…

In beginning there was the word. Of course, there always is.
Then, there were a lot more. And more.
Then they stopped, don’t ask me why. You really don’t want to know.
And then?

Time went by, and there was nostalgia. That too, is always there.
I had enough of staring into space, dreamy-eyed, saying,
“I once had a blog…”, and the rest of it, and sighing.
Lost words, they make me sad.

I woke up, this morning, looked out into the day,
And thought, “I have more words, even though the old are lost.”
I’m inspired today. I’m getting intriguing ideas,
On what I could do with numbers.
I’ll log out and follow them up right now,
The words, I promise will keep coming.

Update: And the words are no longer lost, thanks to an elvish friend! 🙂

But how do we split
The sky into halves,
My half and your half, when-
You don’t live
All that far away?
When all this sky,
All of it is yours,
As it is mine,
When I can open my window.

If I needed no roof above my head
I needed? Do I need a roof above my head?
If I had no roof above my head,
The sky would be mine, all night,
All morning, from dawn, all mine,
Like all the wind and all the rain,
And thunder and clouds and lightning-
You know it? How it feels,
To have all the sky?
For you have it,
And you may have taken it for granted.

Half the sky is a famous catchphrase (I suppose that is the right word) of the feminist movement, one I have always felt uncomfortable in the face of.

I had once written a poem, for one of my first crushes, which started with ‘You are my sky’. Someone told me it was a corny line, but he hadn’t read the full poem. It was a good one, that poem. My parents discovered it and made me burn it, along with many other such stuff, letters, half finished stories, poems, diaries…

October is about my sister’s birthday.

She was born on the 9th of October, in 1987.

I was barely four then, and I remember bragging to my countless cousins about how I was going to have a sister of my own. Not a cousin or anything, but my very own sister. I wish I were older, so I could have remembered seeing her first. She must have been a little red bundle, in a white wrapper, all tiny and wrinkled, with soft pink hands, and tiny fingers which closed on yours if you touched her palm. Of her early days, a lot of people tell me a lot of things, but I can’t remember anything. Just one embarrassing episode, (I never forget embarrassments…) where I asked a guest why they hadn’t brought any gifts for the new baby, and was hauled up by my parents and lectured to. 🙂

My first memories of her include being poked in the eye and being woken up by a sweet little voice calling me “Jayee, Jayee…” baby talk for ‘Chechi’, elder sister. I remember her wandering out of the garden after goats and cows. She still loves all kinds of animals.

I remember the three year old impatiently waiting for the day she’d go to school like me. I remember the four year old reluctantly waking up and asking me “Chechi! Do we have to go to school today, Chechi?”
She turns seventeen this Saturday. But she’s still my baby. (That’s partly why I call her AB, her initials.) When I see school children in pinafores and ribbons in their hair trot by carrying slates and slate pencils, I still look for her among them. I still haven’t got used to the fact that the lanky teenager who rides her cycle to the gate and rings the bell for me to come and open it for her is the same girl who played ‘fairyland’ games with me.

She is quite grown up now, in a number of ways. But at times she is so much a child that I feel sad we expect her to grow up. I feel sorry she has to start making decisions, choose a profession, start working hard for whatever she wants, when she knows nothing of what life will be like. I feel mad at the ugly world outside, because my innocent little girl will have to go out and meet it. I wish she would always remain my baby, and I could hold her hand and walk her to school, wake her up to go out and play, make her eat when she fusses over food, make up silly stories to tell her at night, and go to sleep after her, hoping she wakes up in a world where she won’t know a care…

We all grow up and grow apart, and when I see grown ups and their siblings, seperated by time, space and life, I hope and pray it never happens to my AB and me…

It’s one of those make-you-blue rains.

Out here, it never really rains.
It just drizzles and drizzles,
unlike back home,
Where it’s not rain unless
it pours by the bucket.

Rain, to me,
is Raga Megh.
No other Malhar I’ve heard
Can acheive that force,
that violence, that passion…
But Megh can also be gentle,
yet strong, with the imminence
of an overcast sky.
You run through the fields,
the wind in your face,
your dress, your soul.
It’s four in the afternoon,
but feels like half past six.
After a while,
the joy becomes too much for you,
and you lie on your back on the grass,
and wait for the first drop
on your face or hands.

It sometimes happens that you father is looking out of the window at the same time,
and trusts his daughter not to have the good sense to know that it’s going to rain,
and comes looking for you.
Thankfully,
I’ve always heard him call before he’s seen me.

The first rain after summer,
would always come in the night.
The wind comes in through the windows,
bringing with it the faintest whiff,
of your favourite smell,
and you drop whatever it is that you are doing,
and run to your favourite ledge.

How do you go to sleep on those nights,
When storms rage, and lightning strikes,
in dashes of light, and brilliant clarity,
And you see everything, even those very things,
Which are better, (better?)
or simpler unseen?
When the thunder crashes somewhere far away,
how can you help but wait up for the rain?
It’s been promised to you, and you alone.
When the world is asleep, I will come to you.

“What could my mother
Be to yours?
What kin of my father
Is yours anyway?
And how
Did you and I ever meet?
But in love
our hearts have mingled
Like red earth and pouring rain.”
– Kuruntokai (An anthology of Tamil verse dating back to the 1st century AD)

Now that we are on the topic of nails,
The witch had long, brown, sharp, ugly nails.
She was ugly, wicked, cruel,
With a shrill, scary laugh.

It was a time,
When life meant,
Wake up,
fight with mother,
“I don’t want milk!”
Out in the garden,
A fairy visits you.
“I have lost my crown!”
I, gallant young lady,
find her her crown.
“Thank you, so much!
Do come to our party in fairy-land.”
And it’s afternoon.
And I’m there.
I’ve flown in,
With my new friend,
The fairy princess.
I eat delicious cakes,
And lots of chocolates.
It’s time to go,
Only when the party is over,
And they give everyone
Magic presents.
What did I get?

Mother comes out,
“Come in to lunch.”

Afternoon,
I don’t venture out.
Beggars in black could be
The witch in disguise.

She was tall, dark, ugly.
She spirited you off
To a lonely island,
A castle on the cliff,
with bats flapping wings,
And screeching at the moon.

They’d try to get me
To sleep in the afternoons.
I couldn’t. Still can’t.
I’d read Enid Blyton.

Evening was cartoons,
After struggling with A,B,C
Not that I wanted
My A to look
As crooked as the witches hat.

Cartoons…
I remember only Care Bears
That’s where the witch came in
And stomped on her sidekick.
And screeched and uttered a magic spell.
She made her body disappear,
Into a million tiny stars,
That flew, through the dark,
After the bears…

My witch never won.
I’d clap with delight,
As each scheme of her’s failed.
But she’d go to her castle
And plot the next one.
Raging through her cauldron,
At the lovely li’l bears,
Safe on their rainbows again.

I’d go to bed happy.
No plot of her’s could,
Harm my good little friends, the bears.

That was a long, long time ago.
I’d forgotten
Even the name of that show.
Toonopeadia tells me they are the Care Bears
And no mention of my witch anywhere.

Good.
My witch is too Good for a toon.
She, of the shrill voice and tall crooked hat.
She, greatest terror of her sidekick and bats.

Don’t know when I started looking up to her.
But I remember starting to envy her,
For her own island and cliff-edge castle,
Her life, with no one to tell her “Be quiet!”
Her body, which she could make vanish at will…

Even that was some time ago.
Now, I have my castle,
Don’t have to be quiet,
Can forget my body…

She just drops in now and then.
Just to say “Hi! I’m here”,
“Don’t slip.”, “Don’t cry.”