Debjani Chatterjee pays tribute to
Survivor Poet and Activist
Author of Paper Road (Survivors' Press, 2007)
(b. 28th July 1957 - d. 15th July 2010)
I first came to know Amita through her poetry. Survivors’ Poetry run an innovative and much needed Survivors’ Poetry National Mentoring Scheme, sponsored by the Esmée Fairbairn Foundation. This scheme facilitates first publications, in pamphlet form, for poets who have experienced mental distress, and are unfamiliar with the routines of publishing. Many of these attend the poetry workshop sessions held monthly at Swiss Cottage Library, where Amita was a key facilitator. Each poet chosen has a mentor, who assists with selection and editing.
Alan Morrison, who was co-ordinating the scheme at its inception in 2006 had the task of selecting the mentees and then matching them up with possible volunteer mentors. He suggested me as a mentor for Amita, saying: “She's a talented poet and, with your shared Indian background, she will respond well to your guidance. You will be an ideal mentor for her.” I did not have to commit myself until I had read a sample of her poetry – but the honesty, immediacy and originality that I read there had me hooked straight away. Amita Patel became the first survivor poet that I mentored – through regular correspondence in a long-distance relationship: she lived in London and I in Sheffield, and for much of the time I was working as a Writer in Residence in York. Over a period of more than two years there were occasional gaps in correspondence, some of them quite long, as Amita went in and out of hospital.
I was to help Amita to assemble a poetry collection that Survivors Press eventually published in 2007 as part of a series of debut pamphlets by Survivor Poets. She was happy to take suggestions and to work at her poems, drafting and redrafting them. She took pains to consider each word in her poems. But Amita would send me more than poems – there were photocopies of prose articles she had written, thank-you letters in which she revealed a little about herself, even the occasional Diwali card. Some of her articles and poems have been published in Lambeth Mind's magazine, to whose editorial team she actively contributed. She found great comfort in the act of writing – and she had important things to say. Her prose articles were often brave attempts to campaign to improve the lives of survivors. Amita valued her contact with Lambeth Mind and Survivors' Poetry, both survivor-run organisations.
Amita was a great activist, assisting on Lambeth Mind's helpline and later becoming a ‘hands-on’ trustee. In 2002/03 she was granted a student elective by The Wellcome Trust. She helped to set up and facilitate a Survivors' Poetry group and Hearing Voices support groups. Among her many leading roles, she supported the fight to save the Amardeep from closure. Her article about this unique culturally-specific community mental health service for Lambeth's South Asians can still be read at saveamardeep.org
When one of Amita’s close friends, Yan Weaver from Lambeth Mind, and also Roy Birch from Survivors' Poetry, contacted me with the tragic news that Amita had taken her own life at Beachy Head, East Sussex, I felt that I must revisit her poems – very much needing to hear her warm and distinctive voice again. The poems in her pamphlet, Paper Road, glow for me and I am sure for many others. Her five-line poem, 'Groomed', now seems to anticipate a deadly fascination with sand and sea:
Rising, the tide takes me,
again and again.
I am a broken part of a sand castle,
being smoothed and groomed
into a grain of sand.
In 'At the End' she writes of a dear one's funeral: 'Someone read The Bhagavad Gita' and all lit lamps so that Yama, the God of Death, could come to collect the departed ‘for the journey/to our ancestors’. In my Preface to her collection, I wrote that journeys are a recurring theme in Amita's poems – 'journeys to health, growth and understanding; journeys that entail risk-taking and adventure. Her poems strike a chord for she speaks as a fellow-traveller to every reader on life’s journey.'
The final poem of Paper Road, 'We are Candles', seems to echo the Buddha's message: to be lamps unto oneself.
We are Candles
Ordinary acts of courage,
like sunrises and sunsets,
often go unnoticed.
In the midst
of teeming cities
there are monsters.
And also millions of flames,
tiny and enduring.
Hers was a fine debut collection and I was honoured to be able to mentor her and to edit Paper Road for her. Amita was a talented poet, a courageous champion for social causes, and a woman for whom family, friends and community mattered.
But I have grave doubts about whether mental health professionals did enough to help and support her. Her poems tell me of an isolation in which she was not always understood or helped, and given medication that may have drugged but did not heal her. In 'Voices' she wrote: 'the psychiatrists give me/a tablet of mountains to swallow – unlike Hanuman’s healing herb -mountain'. Hanuman, the monkey-hero of Indian epics, is a Lord of Strength and in one of The Ramayana stories he is the bearer of a mountain containing healing herbs.
Her doctors at the hospital will have known that she had attempted suicide before. This summer Amita was again experiencing a suicidal bout of depression that saw her on a mental health ward for about ten days. Yet, it seems that they let her go on day release on 14th July – and with no accompaniment arranged! But why am I surprised? I, and many in Survivors' Poetry, fear that cuts in NHS and Council Services' mean that our society grows more uncaring and more suicides will follow. Amita Patel's was a valuable life that should not have been allowed to be extinguished.
With sadness I now read the concluding words of my Preface to her collection: “A ‘survivor’ in the truest sense of the word, Amita’s poetry glows with clarity and wisdom in a chaotic world.” In the commonly understood sense of the word, Amita herself cannot still be called a ‘survivor' as she no longer shares the world with us. But she and organisations like Survivors' Poetry have ensured that her words continue to survive and to inspire.
(Amita’s Mentoring Scheme pamphlet, Paper Road, is available from Survivors’ Poetry)
Debjani Chatterjee © 2010