SOUTHSIDE STORIES by Dakshina Gammanpila

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by Dakshina Gammanpila

Back in early March, when the dreaded C came on to the nation’s radar in a tangible sense, I sat down to write my column for a Delhi publication. Having scribbled articles for each edition for almost 3 years, it is a habitual part of my working week. From mid February I could see that as a community we were starting to change how we interacted and I thought to send an article to my publisher focussing on ‘how we greet each other’. Perhaps rather glibly I was going to riff on a theme I had visited previously – the manner in which we say “Hello” without words: whether we embrace, air kiss, press our own palms together, or shake the hands of others.

Having lived, worked and raised children on 3 continents I am fascinated with how we communicate. Some time ago I wrote an article entitled “Say Hello and Wave Goodbye”, this is a sequel. And, although I did not envisage that it would be written in these challenging circumstances, it seems appropriate that my first contribution to Mangoli- a magazine devoted to living in and loving where you are at, in mind, body and spirit – is a nod to greeting.

Greetings, those initial words and gestures on contact, to announce our arrival and acknowledge another’s, are a window on society. They say first impressions count and certainly greeting is integral to comprehending the peculiarities and delights of varying global traditions and stereotypes. Being Sri Lankan British I straddle greetings that are shrouded in warmth and nuanced with discipline. As a child observing the differences in affectionate greetings and hugs and more formal handshakes, it was easy to detect that cultures and customs differ wildly, and are indicative of national traits.

On moving from England to Brazil with my husband, our toddler and new baby many years ago, We soon saw that the effusiveness of greeting could be taken up a notch. Not only hugging but kissing even between men in a business setting is not unheard of, to the extent that my husband seemed to give and receive a full-on bear hug and pat down with his ministerial counterparts, much to the surprise of the visiting UK delegation, who once witnessed this. My children were surrounded with love and a great deal of positive physical contact, nestled amongst newly-made family and friends; even though we had moved thousands of miles from our valued support network cultivated over decades in Britain. When they eventually went into formal education my children were greeted each day at their Brazilian school, by the teacher down on one knee opening up her arms widely and asking (with utmost seriousness, and a beaming smile) “Where’s my kiss?” (It sounds much better in Brazilian Portuguese I assure you). What a start to the day in the a classroom! In England, teachers are liable to get sued for putting sunscreen on a pre-schooler.

My children’s online day at present is a stark contrast. We are in the UK as Autumn sets in and they commenced their school year along with countless peers remotely with their international school in Delhi. Our family, as many others the world over, is relying on technology to communicate. We work simultaneously but distantly, on a plethora of phone conversations, zoom calls and webinars; praying that we have enough bandwidth to withstand the demands placed upon our network (I use that phrase literally, but also very much metaphorically). Instead of being in my home in Delhi, and writing to you at my window with vistas of banana tree and bougainvillea, I am in an attic (neither old and dusty, but warm and bathed in sunshine) and the view is of blue skies, one or two roof tops and a church spire. It may sounds idyllic but working and living across time zones for a protracted period as a family has its challenges, another layer of disconnection in this already seemingly disconnected reality.

During lockdown I continued to head up an organisation that celebrated its 50th year of existence in May. Its inaugural address in 1970 was given by Vijaya Lakshmi Pandit (Nehru’s sister) the first woman President of the Untied Nations’ General Assembly. In addition to commemorating the Golden Jubilee, and offering a social lifeline to its members I had to make many sad announcements of people passing away (including one of my mentors an absolutely outstanding woman). I wrote often to the members of the organisation just to let them know that they were thought about and that despite not being able to meet we were connected. In response those same members wrote back to say that they felt inspired and supported. This sense of connection is vital to our sense of self and our well-being and the best thing about sincere communication is that it is two-way. It is as beneficial to the recipient of our “Hellos” as it is for the sender.

As the wonderful veteran broadcaster Sir David Attenborough said in a BBC interview today (Monday September 28th) “One does miss just walking around and seeing other people”. It truly is as simple as that. We as a species thrive on human contact – face to to face and also the power of touch. It has been proven that the kangaroo care method of skin to skin contact for premature babies helps in their development. Contact is so powerful. We all feel starved of human contact and communication and have done for months, this has profound implications.

In addition to our professional roles, checking in with our families, friends and loved ones is crucial. I’m not saying that you should bombard people – as we know too well social media especially at this time, can be overwhelming. Periodically checking in is vital. I do so regularly with a group of schoolfriends and it has been lovely for us all recounting happenings from school and sharing our lives now in different parts of the world. The arranged zoom calls have been full of laughter as we were all transported back to more innocent – and carefree- times. But that laughter was essential. I also met up in Oxford with one of my closest schoolfriends, now a director who was just about to start filming for 5 weeks in a bubble of cast and crew. We had not met for a very, very long time and sat and talked (and laughed) for hours. The years fell away. It was both gin and the tonic, underlining the fact that communication is what makes us tick and makes life worth while.

Whilst we concentrate on the R numbers, the methods and rates of transmission and recoveries and the economy getting back on its feet we have to have an eye on our mental well-being.Health and wealth its not simply about escaping the symptoms, causes and consequences of the physical manifestations of Covid 19. I would wager that our mental health has never in our lifetimes been so fragile and important. Seeing norms diminish and keeping it together is a tall order. When I worked with Women’s and Mental Health NGOs in the UK decades ago, mental health was marginalised. Mental health was considered, if it was considered at all, to be an optional extra. The other charities and health conditions in the alliance within which I worked, such as heart disease, cancer, diabetes and HIV to name a few, were much more front and centre.

The pandemic, more than ever has shone a much-needed light on mentalhealth: how to nurture and preserve it, how to recognise when things aren’t quite right or in balance. It is all too easy when we are focused on keeping our loved ones safe, when we are reading the statistics, when we see the state of the world and try to find our place in it, to let how we think and feel and process things (both big and small), slide. Shaking hands already seems a thing of the past, but heartfelt Hellos and Goodbyes are not. Make sure you engage it doesn’t have to be long and drawn out. My Mum and I exchange both significant and insignificant details of our lives remotely and when I read her sign off ‘Love you all’ I feel her love. It makes me feel connected despite lockdowns and restrictions.

Negotiating the teen years is difficult enough, without the added uncertainties of a pandemic (I will touch upon that in another article), children whatever their age look to us for guidance or at least balance. So we have to be careful how we model that. A definite question of balance (another subject which we will explore in the coming weeks) as sometimes we leave nothing in the tanks for us – here i am talking about anyone who is a supporter or carer not just parents. Balancing socio-emotional and learning needs is as crucial as it is arduous, we need to acknowledge that there is no magic bullet. Reaching out helps.

I am so grateful that my children’s early schooling experience was an atmosphere of warmth and security. Even if they did not know it, I did that we learn and live and love better when we are happy and supported. The pill I recommend: Find your support systems and reach out to them.

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