Thursday, 28 March 2013

Anil's Ghost

When we were first married in 1987, S's work took us to the new town of Embilipitiya in southern Sri Lanka. It wasn't the prettiest of towns, indeed it reminded me a bit of Swindon, for it was full of people who were a long way from their families, posted there for work. But it was exciting to be in the tropics and our lush tropical garden was full of delights and interest. A huge monitor lizard visited from time to time.

I'd left the life and death work and 100-hour shifts of a junior hospital doctor for the life of a memsahib in the steamy Indian Ocean. I wanted to do something useful and thought it would be easy to set up clinics for local children and mothers. I found a relaxed male nurse to organise and translate for me and felt I could make a difference. S's project funded the medicines, and I looked forward to setting up a team of volunteers who could deliver health education and improve the lot of the poor.

People were - of course - interested. Some days I'd struggle to see nearly 200 patients. Other days though only three or four hopefuls would come to see us, and when I asked why more hadn't come, people would say that they were told to have nothing to do with us. The local Janatha Vimukthi Peramuna / Peoples' Liberation Front had said we were linked to the government and should therefore be boycotted. People we frightened. People disappeared. In the northo f the island there was a different war going on involving the Tamil Tigers. One of S's Tamil colleagues went home to Jafna on leave to see friends and family and was shot - by Indian 'peacekeepers' because he had arranged a 'political' meeting.

Driving to clinics sometimes, there'd be a group of people gathered around a house and when I asked about it, Mr D'd simply say 'Someone has been killed.'

Michael Ondaatje's powerful novel Anil's Ghost is set in these terrible times, and I see further sobering evidence of the attrocities is coming to light...

Reading reports like this reminds me... We really don't know how lucky we are to live in such untroubled times here in the West. The NHS is struggling but patients are still getting looked after - and no-one has death-threats for attending the GP surgery.

Tuesday, 26 March 2013

Miracle Drug

Alexander on his way to Kanchenjunga
I was asked to do a live radio interview a while back. It was a Sunday morning programme where the guest picks a few pieces of music to discuss, and the chat starts with the reasons each are important and wanders on to the memories they evoke.  I found it surprisingly hard to come up with three songs that define my life. I thought of Brick in the Wall, as a comment on my struggle at school because of my dyslexia, and it is of course by a local Cambridge band.

Bridge over Troubled Water was another classic that got me thinking of the stilling influences of the quiet people who are most important to me, but also it had me recalling some of the scary bridges we navigated in Nepal. Some were so rotten or flimsy, we were never confident we’d all get across safely.

I was also thought of using U2’s

“I want a trip inside your head
Spend the day there...
To hear the things you haven't said
And see what you might see

I wanna hear you when you call
Do you feel anything at all?
I wanna see your thoughts take shape
And walk right out....”

This seemed to say so much and was so very poignant to me, because of my experiences in trying to contact my baby. But before I settled on this choice, I thought I’d better check on the lyrics. I was surprised to discover that the song I’d heard as Miracle Child, was actually Miracle Drug. So this wasn’t an innocent song about a parent’s love and contacting a troubled child, but a description of someone tripping on illegal substances.
David trekking in A Glimpse of Eternal Snows

THEN I strayed across a YouTube clip of Bono talking about the song and its inspiration. He explained that all the band members attended the same comprehensive school and a child called Christopher Nolan joined their class. Christopher’s body and his brilliant brain was locked in by severe cerebral palsy; he could hardly move. But then he was given a drug that relaxed just a little of the tension in his muscles. This enabled him to start typing by way of a 'unicorn' stick attached to his forehead. And so he wrote The Dam-burst of Dreams – his first book – at the age of 15.
“The songs are in your eyes
I see them when you smile...”

Nolan's book is a miraculous outpouring of all the creativity that was bottled up inside his wonderful mind for his entire childhood.

So there it was: the song that had spoken to me so powerfully was indeed about a mother’s love for a difficult-to-contact child. I didn’t discover this until after the interview though. Instead of Miracle Drug, so ended up choosing something ‘safer’: a piece of Nepali folk music, and I was probably the only person to enjoy its unusual chords and unpredictable rhythms that Sunday morning.

Thursday, 14 March 2013

Delicious Echoes

The perfume of toasting cumin unfailingly transports me to Nepal, and evokes wonderful memories of that rich and vibrant country. During the six years I lived there with my family I grew to love our twice-daily scented rice with spicy lentils and curried vegetables. I began to understand why Nepalis remain unsatisfied and complain that they haven’t eaten unless they’ve eaten rice.

Many westerners overlook how varied food can be even if it does comprise just rice, lentils and vegetables. A huge range of spices, delicious fresh chutneys and yoghurt-based accompaniments as well as the individuality added by each cook, mean that each tali tastes deliciously different - and can be relied upon to transport me to the majestic mountains, swaying, snow-fed ricefields or even perhaps to the Kiplingesque jungles of the lowlands. The variety of flavours, textures and colours means that meat isn’t necessary and proves that excellent food can be healthy, tasty, inexpensive and good for the planet.

Especially now that I have a taste for spicy food, I was particularly interested to learn that chilli-eating cheers you up. They stimulate the production of endorphins - the body’s so-called natural morphine. The areas of the human brain that are responsible for interpreting smell and taste are in the frontal lobes which also happen to be the regions responsible for reward as well as long-term memory. Perhaps that is why scents can provoke such brilliant holidays in your head. So eating spicy Nepali food is not only pleasurable for its own sake because it tastes good, but it is full of healthful anti-oxidants and lift your spirits too. Ramro sangar khannus!

First published in Agena magazine, for the Nepalese Catering Association, UK

photo by Simon Howarth