Jiah Khan and Jyotsna Satpad. One actor, one student; both quitting life even before it began. JERRY PINTO writes about the tragedy of suicide
Twenty-five years ago, when I was the school librarian at Victoria High School, Mahim, Mumbai, Mrs. M, a seventh standard teacher, came into the library for a quiet moment. Her eyes were red with weeping.
“What happened?” I asked.
“The neighbour’s daughter,” she said. “She failed her ninth standard examination and the authorities wouldn’t let her sit for the tenth. She killed herself. Hanged herself. From the fan.”
I ordered tea as Mrs. M wept into her handkerchief.
“What I will never forget,” she said, “is her dupatta. It was bloody. She had scratched her neck trying to get free.”
I am writing this on the day that Mumbai has announced the tenth standard results and already a 16-year-old girl, Jyotsna Satpad, has swallowed poison and died. Death is in the air. Suicide is in the air. It is also in the news. Jiah Khan, star of Ghajini and Nishabd, made the front page. Jyotsna Satpad made Page 4 of a tabloid. That is how the media handle the dead: with grim attention to what they achieved when they were alive.
But I’m not worried about that. I know that the media only reflects the state of our society. You can probably name the wife of Abhishek Bachchan but you probably can’t name the chief minister of Tripura. And who is to blame for that? The media who don’t talk about the North East because they think those states don’t matter to you? Or you, who want to know the wife of the son of a star?
What I am worried about is the state’s response to suicide.
At one level, there is nothing the state can do about it once a human being decides that life holds no meaning and that he wants out. (And yes, the number of men who kill themselves is always higher than the number of women so yes, ‘he’.) There are a hundred ways to leave the building. Paracetamol in large enough quantities will do the trick, but you will linger for days in agony. Drink Baygon and they might be able to take you to the hospital, writhing in pain, screaming as it sears all the way down, but you will end up with damaged kidneys. The dupatta and the fan? You might bloody your dupatta, scraping at your neck to get free. After all, hangmen spend their lives trying to get the knot right so that it will break the neck of the victim, quickly, easily. In England, they would practise with dummies.
What worries me is this. On our law books, suicide is a crime. In our criminal law class at Government Law College, Mumbai, I remember the lecturer saying, “This is the only crime where the state seeks to punish with imprisonment someone who has failed in his intent.” Because if you do ‘succeed’ in this ‘crime’, you pass beyond the control of the state.
This is an old British trick and it was used against all those who sought to make war on the state, using their own bodies as battlegrounds. So when Mahatma Gandhi started a fast unto death, he could always be bundled into jail. And Irom Sharmila can be arrested again and again, every year, and force-fed through her nose. This is why homosexuality may eventually be legalised but suicide will not. The state cannot afford to let Irom Sharmila die.
But of course, when a religious person decides to stop eating or drinking, no one ever objects. The state turns a blind eye when the newspapers report the slow fade of a Jain monk. When Vinoba Bhave decided that he had had enough, that he was on his way out, Indira Gandhi flew down from Delhi to try and get him to change his mind. She owed him, remember? He supported the Emergency, bringing to bear his Gandhian presence on the Gandhian nightmare of 1975. Bhave refused to listen to her. And the state was complicit in its silence.
So the Indian state, which is growing increasingly Draconian, which seeks to hurt its citizens more often than it seeks to solace them, will never take that one off the books. But it could invest in a helpline. It could create a suicide prevention service. Jeroo Billimoria’s Childline (dial 1098) may have done more to prevent suicides among children than a hundred thousand articles like this one. We do not need campaigns about depression with their clunky headlines and their complete lack of any back-up. We need a helpline, 24-hours, all languages, with trained professionals operating it. We need to make this work or I’m going to have to dust off this piece and rewrite it again and again, as the Indian state harvests its strange fruit, blood on the leaves and blood on the root.
Jerry Pinto is the author of Em and the Big Hoom (Aleph) which won the Hindu Lit for Life Prize in 2013.