South Asian History Month: Dr Fabida Aria
31 July, 2021
One of the regular statements my father made to my siblings and me was to ‘never forget our roots’. As children we wanted to grow up and do many things and at the time we never really understood how much meaning this statement had until many, many years later.
If anything I, like many other children from South Asian countries, have had periods where I have felt embarrassed about some of the stories that make up the ‘roots’ of our lives…until I was able to realise the remarkable journey in life and transitions my parents had made. Today I would like to share some of these with you.
My parents were both born in different villages in Kerala. We have heard many stories of how they lived with kerosene lamps before electricity became available, the traditional methods of cooking, the traditional roles where women did the housework and looked after children, men did various jobs, the major role that religions played in the community.
Kerala is a state in India where there is 100% literacy so my parents were both fortunate to go to school. However, they both had major life events in their teenage years which disrupted their education. My father lost his father when he was only 15; my grandfather had diabetes and also contracted Tuberculosis.
Following his death, my father decided to work to feed the large family and for this he migrated to Mumbai and then to the UAE in his late teens, doing various jobs, and learning English by reading vociferously. He moved to Oman, continued working and moved up the ranks over the next several years from a hotel waiter to a manager.
Around this time his mother decided to get him married to my mother, who was then in her teens, and at the tender age of 13 she was married to my dad who was around 10 years older. The impact of this only came truly came home to me when my daughter was 13 and I simply could not imagine how on earth anyone could even consider anyone so young to be married! I recall my mother saying she was luckier than others who were even younger!
She left school, became a wife and six years later a mother. My father moved jobs, was successful and we were privileged to live in lovely homes and I studied at an Indian school in Oman. We were exposed to many cultures and I remember doing an ‘Omani dance ‘ in my one my school concerts. My parents also wore some of the traditional clothes as the Omani’s wore and we had some lovely neighbours.
I still recall his stories from his travels around the world and he told us once how shocked he was in the early 1980s when he came to London and an Englishman took his suitcase. As a young person in India under the British Raj this was something he would have never imagined in his lifetime.
As children, we spent our holidays in Kerala between both parents‘ homes. The wonderful memories of climbing mango and cashew trees, eating custard apples, jackfruit and mangoes from the garden; putting henna on our hands,and having kitchens with wood burning stoves.
My parents tried to get us to have lessons for Malayalam the mother tongue and my knowledge of this is basic which I am very grateful for. This is a language you have to twist your tongue in so many ways that unless you heard and tried it one cannot imagine. It was my shock when many years later when I was working at a medical school that I heard a gap year student from UK talking it beautifully and she had learnt it over a period of months that she lived there.
After my GCSE I went back to India, to another place called Bangalore in the state of Karnatake which is a place always close to my heart where I made lifelong friends from around the world. I did my A levels and then went to medical school. Having left at 16, I used to go to Oman every six months as I missed my parents and home so much. I made some lifelong friends, a close one from Sri Lanka and we were both awed by the fact that we had quite a few aspects in common in terms of food and even some of the words in our languages.
In 2002 I came to England and, following the course of Plab exams etc, I took up a psychiatry training scheme after doing a clinical attachment and having realised I have found my place.
I am the first doctor in my family. I know of many people from similar backgrounds to me, whose parents had the money but did not choose to educate their daughters as mine had, and they followed the lives their parents did. My mother, despite her stopping school at a young age had drilled into my brain the value of education, the need to stand on my own feet and not depend on anyone.
What attracted me to psychiatry were the stories behind the person we see; especially the stories we cannot see, that are only shared with a huge degree of trust. We should not underestimate how much it means to be trusted.
Working in Leicester I am lucky to hear many stories of people, and I try to understand how different generations have sacrificed so much.
Today as the chair of the Transcultural psychiatry Special Interest Group, I want these stories to be understood by health professionals around the world. I want to share the richness in diversity, to abolish the shame and embarrassment felt by people who are victims to circumstances and life events and for the privileged to pull up the underprivileged, irrespective of colour or race.
The executive committee members and I share many stories of people’s lives, of hope and inspiration, and also discrimination and despair. We want people around the world to join us and together achieve the best mental health for people across the world.
I am fortunate enough to have taken on the opportunities that came to me today I am a senior leader in my organisation, and have heard a friend say to me that I am a woman of colour and how difficult a journey this is for me. In my view, this makes me an essential addition to any leadership team and I will bring to the table a rich experience that will be of benefit. I want another person like me to believe they can achieve anything and encourage anyone doubting themselves to take the step towards making a difference and that if I could, you certainly can.
I also know the importance of never forgetting my roots and keep in touch with family and friends around the world and have passed on these stories to my children, and hope they continue to do the same.