It may have come to the notice of some of you – I hope – that I haven’t posted anything in a while. Actually I had written a post based on some interesting anecdotes my mother had told me about my Nani (Maternal Grandmother). All that was needed was some editing and I could have published the post. Instead, I went into a funk – an inexplicable deep, dark funk. I thought it was a sign of the monthly blues which come as regularly as Aunt Flo. So I let it be. I closed my eyes, tried to hush the inner noise and waited for the funk to pass. And then 2 days back, I heard the unfortunate news about a young lawyer who left this world much before her time. I don’t know the facts so I am not going to comment on them. Maybe she had felt alone, maybe she had sought help, maybe she too had been in a deep dark funk but in her case the feeling just hadn’t pass. There was the customary round of messages – “So sad”, “Be Safe”, “Please be in touch” and so forth. It was in this frame of mind that I sat down to edit the post on my grandmother and I had an epiphany. But first let me tell you my grandmother’s story.
A little background on the lady herself. I don’t know much about her early childhood but she got married pretty young – I guess when she was 13-14 years old. My grandfather was 4 years elder to her and still studying at the time – he would go on to become a lawyer and a judicial magistrate. The one story that has passed down through generations is that my grandfather (young and probably very much enamoured with his newly wed wife) had wanted to appoint a tutor for her to study further, but his mother who was an extremely domineering lady had thrown such a royal fit that the word tutor was never mentioned in the house. On getting married, my grandmother had moved from Delhi to a city in Uttar Pradesh called Saharanpur. She isn’t very tall – I believe she must be 4 feet 9 inches – while her husband was almost a head and foot taller than her. I am not sure how easy or difficult her life was, but either way she is known to have never complained very much, even though my grandfather had become quite crotchety in his old age. The woman I know and have known over the years is a serene and accepting person, who has not allowed the vicissitudes of life to affect her.
The stories that my mother told me came in the context of knitting. Apparently, my grandmother had been the resident knitting champ of her locality in Saharanpur in her younger days. The ladies in her neighbourhood would consult her over patterns and take tips on knitting from her. She was a fount of information for knitters – basically she was to them what Google and YouTube are now to me. But that is not all, I was told that this diminutive, not highly educated, very religious woman was otherwise also quite a force among the ladies in her neighbourhood. They trusted her and would seek her advice on problems personal to them. Rumour has it that once when a mother-to-be could not be taken to the hospital in time, my grandmother was called to help deliver the baby at home. All the ladies, including my grandmother, would regularly gather on someone’s rooftop to discuss stuff related to their lives, stuff which the women were sometimes not comfortable discussing even with their husbands or families. There was a sense of belonging and a feeling that help was close at hand whenever it was needed.
That got me thinking and eventually led me to my epiphany. Were my grandmother and her neighbourhood ladies on to something? Was it possible that all the support, given and received over the years from the ladies in her informal knitting group, had made my grandmother this calm and uncomplaining? I have never asked her nor have I any data to back this hypothesis – basically all this is conjecture. But the more I think about it, the more I feel that there is some correlation. I think as far as mental health is concerned, maybe the in-your-face-nosiness of life in a small town is better than the mind-your-own-business isolation of big cities.
I can explain this with the help of a simple example. For all the messages that go around reminding us to stay in touch with friends and family, when I was in my funk, I did not pick up the phone to call or text anyone to talk about how I was feeling. It is highly unlikely that even if someone had called to ask me how I was feeling, I would have said anything other than “Perfect!”. I have five closer-than-close girl friends – two of them even live in Delhi – and there was a point of time when we were all highly attuned to each other’s moods and feelings, but I didn’t talk to any of them. Instead, I decided to rely on myself and on the coping mechanisms that I have developed over the years. Why did I do that? Maybe, because I didn’t want to be thought of as weak or inadequate by my friends and colleagues. Or maybe I didn’t want people to think that I was indulging in attention seeking behaviour. Or maybe I didn’t want to feel like a failure – after all everyone else was managing just fine in this difficult time. Or maybe I just didn’t have enough faith that anyone would be able to help me. I don’t know what the real reason was and the reason really isn’t important.
This is true for a lot of us, especially for those of us who have 9 to 9 jobs, live alone in metropolitan cities, meet friends only for drinks over weekends, visit families once every 6 months, don’t know our neighbours’ names and believe in minding our own effing business! Sound familiar? But what happens when things get tough but the reliable coping mechanisms don’t kick in or doing it all on your on is just not enough – something somewhere just snaps and often a precious life is lost. Friends – who probably care deeply – are left waiting for a call/message asking for help. The call – when it does come – comes too late, only to deliver heartbreaking news.
You may ask how all of this is connected to my grandmother’s neighbourhood group of ladies. I’ll tell you how. She was a part of a group where people were not minding their own business and were actually being nosy about each other’s lives. They probably gossiped, shared recipes & patterns and enjoyed themselves tremendously, but they also heard each other’s problems and tried to come up with solutions. In a way, it was like an informal support group. It is my view that with the sort of lives we lead, all of us need such support groups.
There are successful support groups around the world obviously like Alcoholics Anonymous or Narcotics Anonymous. I know of grief support groups and of support groups for people suffering from cancer, mental diseases, etc. But when I reference my grandmother’s group of ladies, I’m not referring to such formal groups. I’m talking about support for people who are not suffering from any addiction or disease, but who may have received a temporary set back in life or are just going through a tough phase. I’m talking about people who find it difficult to express their deepest darkest thoughts to friends, families and colleagues for one of the myriad reasons I have mentioned above, but find it easier to talk to strangers.
A support group ought not to be confused with a group of friends meeting over drinks or a book/movie club or a kitty party – even though what my grandmother had was a social group. A support group ought to be a group where people can sit across from each other and say without any hesitation that “I feel low”, “I’m having dark thoughts” or “I feel like ending my life”. In this group, you and your problems are as welcome as the next person’s. You come by choice, you speak up by choice and you ask for help by choice – but at the back of your mind you always know that help is close at hand whenever you need it.
I’ll take it a step further. Once at a particularly low time in my professional life, Nikhil told me that I just have to Suit up, Boot up and Show up and everything else would fall into place. I will extend this to the case I am making for support groups. When life looks bleak and your heart is full of despair, all you need to do is to show up and say that you need help. After that you can leave it to your group to help you out of that deep, dark place. It is a collective effort. You’ll help me and I’ll help you and in this way maybe we’ll save each other. Because folks, the time to do it all on your own is over!