Brown Melancholia

Yesterday, saw Mental Health Awareness Month (16-22 May 2016) kick off in the UK with charities, individuals and organisations holding events to talk about mental health.

When it comes to discussing mental health, there is a collective reluctance for South Asians (both in the Diaspora and the motherland) to have those important conversations with people who live with a mental health illness or those who live with family members suffering from depression, bipolar disorder, schizophrenia and other illnesses.

It’s a bizarre dichotonomy; on one hand we don’t talk about mental health problems enough yet we don’t even realise the impact it has on people who live with relatives who suffer from a mental health illness.

My father has depression, and has lived with it for many years, so much so that I don’t remember a time when my dad didn’t have depression. I love my dad – he’s been a mother and a father to me due to personal circumstances– and it’s so difficult to see someone I love so much live with a mental health illness that takes over their life.

If I were to describe how it feels, I’d say that it goes like this: my dad, depression and me. In that order. And it’s not his fault that he has bad days and doesn’t feel like he can face the world. I know that my dad is not his depression.

I’ve grown up hearing relatives say that my father ‘is mad’ or they give him a wide berth because they don’t know how to talk to him, they think that he’s an unstable, volatile freak of nature so they end up saying something offensive or backward.

That used to really get to me, but now, I know it’s because that’s all they ever knew about mental health problems and that they’re merely a product bred by the silence we choose to maintain.

With so many resources and tech at our fingertips, we can’t keep relying on the old ‘log kya kahenge

This silence which has permeated generations, and still continues to, is what frightens and angers me. As a collective Diaspora, we are so concerned with what other people will think (“log kya kahenge?”) that we would rather choose silence over losing face in order to save a loved one.

 

You have no idea how much I hate those three words: log kya kahenge and the untold suffering, melancholy, helplnessness and pain it inflicts upon so many people of South Asian descent.

When it comes to topics, any topic, we all know that silence is complicit yet so many South Asians will choose to stay silent, make ignorant comments or shift uncomfortably in their seats if someone talks about depression, suicide or counselling.

We’ve ended up turning another thing into a stigma because we refuse to let go off our ego, pride and arrogance, which may give us short term social prestige, but it makes our lives a misery.

This in turn makes it very difficult for us to assess how widespread this issue is, given that there already is very little data to help doctors and mental health experts on how to approach South Asians who suffer from mental health problems.

Today, there is not a single valid excuse, for Diasporic Asians to make ignorant statements about mental health given that 1 in 4 people will suffer from/experience a mental health illness at some point in their lifetime.

In the same way that so many of us choose silence over awareness, we can also make the choice to educate ourselves about mental health illlnesses, support those living with one and choose unity over living in our respective ivory towers.

 

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The Scars that No One Can See

 

Image sourced from: https://www.edvardmunch.org

 

 

As a writer, I love reading and writing stories, yet it is listening to other people’s stories which fills me with a sense of wonder.

Ever since I was a child, I’ve always imagined that other people walk around with a massive scroll of inky parchment inside of them, which spills out of their eyes, mouths and hearts whenever they talk about an aspect of their life

Yesterday, I was working with BBC Asian Network on a radio package which has turned out to be one of those experiences which has imprinted itself in my mind and my heart. It was a really emotive and powerful phone-in discussion which saw many people (from all walks of life, backgrounds, religions etc) feel compelled to contact the show to tell their stories.

“Literature, the arts and storytelling are the ultimate expression of what it means  to be a human being – the good, the bad and the ugly.”

The playback link is here, I’d urge you to listen to it, even though it is  heart-wrenching in places because of the topic we were discussing, it’s  important for us all to listen to these people’s stories about emotional abuse.

What struck me, was how many people contacted the show to tell their stories, how candid they were and how widespread instances of emotional abuse are.

I, like many others in the South Asian Diaspora, have often grown up either indirectly/directly/seeing/experiencing emotional abuse happen to someone we know – or even to us as individuals. Many of us have grown up knowing the stigma surrounding mental health, divorced families and having children out of wedlock – there’s a reluctance to discuss depression let alone emotional abuse!

At first I thought: “How have we managed to fail so many people across generations, in the motherland and the Diaspora, and not address a toxic behaviour that has the ability to destroy people’s lives, their families and sense of being?”

It was heart-breaking to listen to people crying on the phone, their voices breaking as they told their stories and this only reinforced the latter. I felt furious that this sort of behaviour is generally not taken seriously because some people believe that it is ‘not as bad as physical violence.’

“It chips away at you; it’s not like a single nasty statement which would make you walk away. It’s difficult for South Asian women to walk away and leave everything you love/know behind.”

What was even more poignant, was the number of people who realised that it counts as a form of abuse and is illegal under UK law, when they looked back on their experiences.

Growing up, I remember being told by teachers that: “sticks and stones may break my bones, but words will not affect me.”

As a young adult, I believe that this the stupidest phrase I have heard in my existence on planet Earth (so far). Everyone knows that words are specifically designed to either boost or cut people; look at how most women react after someone calls them fat.

Throw a rock at someone any day (not that I endorse or advocate such behaviour). They’ll go to A&E for a bandage to heal that wound and be ok, but it is scars from cruel words that no one can see which cause us the most excruciating pain, because no one can see it.

“Sticks and stones may break my bones, but words will not affect me.”

When it comes to trying to define emotional abuse, it’s often like trying to navigate your way through smoke with a blindfold on.

So many of us are simply not aware of what it entails or what counts as emotional abuse, yet, we know the devastating impact that it has on the lives of thousands of men, women and children across ethnic groups, religions and cultures.

Towards the end of the phone-in discussion, I suddenly felt a golden balloon of hope begin to swell inside of my throat. While I had initially felt a sense of white-hot anger and disgust at the unnecessary suffering these people had experienced, I suddenly felt proud of them.

I felt so proud of them for being brave to tell their stories, to discuss an issue that many South Asians are not willing to acknowledge (let alone discuss), to challenge bigots on national radio, to stand up for themselves/other victims of emotional abuse, to reclaim their sense of self, their power and break through that barrier of silence that so many South Asians have become accustomed to living under.

It felt like every single one of these people were subconsciously trying to help others who might be in similar positions and to give them a simple message:

“You are not alone. There are people who will help you.”

 

Cuckoos in the Nest

Image sourced from https://www.theguardian.com

Across the world, there are parts of many major cities, which are affectionately known by particular nicknames and become a part of every day urban life.

There’s Little Venice in London, Little Italy in New York City or various Chinatowns in large cities in many countries who have a large number of Chinese people residing in a particular urban area.

It’s a similar story here too: Leicester/Wembley (Little Gujarat), Southall/Birmingham/Derby (Mini Panjab), Tower Hamlets (Bangla Town) and Bradford, which became known as ‘Bradfordistan’ thanks to a scrawl of graffiti on a motorway road sign.

These are terms, often used by British Asians, and most British people of other ethnic groups,  to describe areas with significantly higher percentages of South Asian residents.

The context behind why such large numbers of South Asians live in these areas, is because it was often the first place where their parents/grandparents settled when they arrived in the UK. Like any other ethnic group, you either end up staying in the same place or you move away.

It’s human nature to want to fit in and belong to a social group, be liked, accepted and regarded; we are social creatures.

Many British Asians often make these tongue-in-cheek comments to each other, because many have grown up visiting relatives in these areas (and others), were born and raised there, or because it’s where we buy all our food, sweets, spices and traditional clothing from.

Growing up, I was never really sure if people used these nicknames with affection, disdain or embarrassment. I remember having cousins who were extremely reluctant – and even disgusted – to visit areas like Ilford, Southall or Wembley because “it was like being in an Indian village.” The irony of this was that they had never even been to a village in the UK, let alone India!

Similarly, for British Asians who are born and raised in such areas, visit parts of London (and the UK) where there are much lower numbers of South Asians and experience culture shock.

My part of London is an example; I was one of a handful of British Asian girls throughout primary and secondary school in the late 90s/early 2000s in an area that was (and still is) very English/Irish and Italian. I wasn’t socially exposed to the British Asian experience in a place like Hounslow or Wembley; I grew up with a stronger emphasis on North Indian culture and where I stand with that.

“A cuckoo in the nest is an unwelcome intruder in a place or situation.”

It wasn’t until I went to university and met British Asians who had never gone beyond their hometowns, didn’t even have friends of other ethnic groups or religions, that I suddenly felt like a cuckoo in the nest – socially speaking.

At first, people viewed me as though I were some sort of strange social experiment (like The Truman Show) and whenever they spoke to me, they were visibly uncomfortable and tense. Then they ended up flat out ignoring me or making snide comments which made me feel very out of place.

They felt like – and had already decided that – I wasn’t a true ‘Indian’ because I didn’t grow up the way that they did, I spoke other languages, had a different spiritual outlook and because my parents weren’t from India.

I remember someone once made a joke in Panjabi, and I bantered back at them in the same language and receiving looks of shock. Then came the comments: “Oh! I thought you were a coconut!” “How did you learn Panjabi while growing up in south London?”

It was bizarre beyond belief and as though they believed that South Asian cultures couldn’t thrive in areas where they’re a minority. This itself is a hypocritical way of thinking: we all know that culture, as a concept, is capable of surviving and thriving in areas where it is not immediately visible.

The core components of what makes a culture thrive is unity, accepting that it will change and adapt with time, understanding that it is multi-faceted and relies on a number of factors which are not dependent on which part of London/the UK you have grown up in and deem to be an ‘authentic British Asian experience.’