I sit before my coffee and think of the unknown faces who are committing suicides every forty seconds. Men or women, poor or rich, young or aged, they all take their lives by their own hands or volition. They have all been sharing the same world, same sunlight and rain, same space and ecosphere with me. While I am drinking my coffee they stand on tiptoes on the edge and drop silently down into the abyss of darkness. Never to be found again.
I remember an aunt of mine called Sujata who was the first suicide case in my life. I was a seventeen year old kid who divided his time between poetry and fighting occasionally the tough kids in the neighbourhood. I did not know death till then, let alone suicide except in pages of books or distant places like someone else’s life. Sujata was about thirty five with a fifteen year old daughter, with a broken marriage and an increasingly complicated emotional life. Her parents and family did not approve of her failure to manage her marriage and blamed her for it. The male members in her family started taking advantage of her because she was financially weak and not so well educated either. The only link she and I had in common, outside being family by blood, was poetry and fiction, a craving for imaginative adventures.
Many a night we two crowded each other in a lonely corner of the roof or the spiral staircase to talk about the books we read, shared jokes and a warm friendly conversation that was more of peer group buddies than aunt and nephew. She was dear to me on another count too, she was a devastatingly creative chef and cooked me foods which none other could think of.
I told her often, dear aunt, why don’t you start writing stories yourself and she told me how at the age of seventeen she had written a 30 page incomplete love story in secret only to be discovered and shamed publicly by her family.
This unfortunate case of an incomplete love story caused her parents to force her into a marriage she did not want to enter, with an unknown clerk of Calcutta Municipal Corporation who was a decade and a half older to her and quintessentially opposite to her in tastes and character. The two completely different animals lived together for some years, with a lot of stress generated which embittered both of them towards each other. The only fruit of the marriage, my cousin Suvra, was born to unhappiness and by dint of her unfortunate parental relationship and continuous stress from early years was fated to enter deeper unhappiness in later life.
At seventeen I came face to face with suicidal death when one winter evening, raining and smoky, my father took me to a hospital where in a general ward full of sick people of different descriptions my fair and sensitive aunt was lying in an iron bedstead, with oxygen mask fitted to her face, in death agony. That imprinted a picture on my memory for good, a picture of utter hopelessness and lonely despair. I don’t know why I was attacked beside her deathbed not by hopelessness but by an intense sensation of love, love for my unfortunate aunt, love for the other men and women in the ward, even for the sulky nurses doing their rounds of duty in that sordid hall of suffering. Much later I realised that I was in fact being seized by the vibes sent by my aunt in her last moments, her pains and desires for life and love came overflowing me, took over my consciousness and fought to survive for the last time.
At the age of forty five while reading Kazuo Ishiguro’s novel Never Let Me Go the feelings came back to me in a strangely reinforced way, I saw the “clones”, the hapless boys and girls being brought up with a special plan to donate body organs for other more fortunate people on earth, to die bit by bit and day by day, and nonetheless cherishing their private dreams of love and desires in their cold, poorly heated, unloved living quarters.
I had a difficult time, despite the initial surge of love, to cope with the suicide of my aunt. She had taken dangerous doses of sleeping pills, I came to learn later, in fact she had made two unsuccessful attempts earlier too, not taken seriously by her relatives and friends. In her last days she was living alone in a small flat in north Calcutta, trying to earn her livelihood by providing home service of food to poor students, impoverished clerks, unhappy bachelors or divorcees, and to some other people she could identify as clients. A couple of males pretending to be lovers hovered over her vulnerability and innocence, the latter rudely ridiculed by all as utter foolishness of a woman who would never grow up..
Two or three years later came Barin who was in same class of the college with me, a dark, awkward, lanky youth whose father had been a grocer and who wanted to study literature because he felt a yearning for it. Barin, however, had had an inadequate training in languages and other subjects and he was a social misfit in our class, most of the others being smart, reasonably well read and exhibitionist of one kind or other. He sensed some kinship or sympathy in me and therefore tried to force himself on me despite the open rudeness and neglect from others including some of my friends. I sensed his need for friendship but what I offered him in return was perhaps a fraction of what he deserved. Being immature myself I tolerated him but did not hold his hand because that would be looked askance by my peers.
After six months or so there was an incident in the class in which Barin was insulted by some others and he created a big scene which was all very enjoyable to us boys. I tried to talk to him later offline but he turned down my sympathy. He said, I know you all, you all look down upon me because I dress and talk in a different way and have not read the books you may have read. But you do not want to help me, talk to me so I will no longer ask for your time any more.
Barin became very distant to me for a few months, and then one day he met me at the bus stop after college hours and came near me saying, Debashish, I will share with you something, do you know I am in love with a girl and I am so happy I have found somebody to share my feelings ….I couldn’t resist sharing this with you, please do not discuss with the others.
The next three to four months I observed he was increasingly at peace with himself, his awkwardness and edginess markedly gone, his smiles and confidence surprised everybody, even class tests were going better.
At the end of four months Barin stopped coming to the college. Nobody really bothered. I was the only guy who kept thinking about him so after a fortnight or so I took a bus and went to the locality in east Calcutta taking his address from the college administration office.
I reached his house which was very small, located in a congested area full of slums and too narrow lanes and bylanes, surrounded by ill maintained ponds, in the morning. Entering, I saw an elderly man sitting on the floor with his head down and hidden in both his hands and a number of people around him crying and grieving together.
The elderly man whom I discovered to be Barin’s father told me his son had committed suicide a couple of days ago only.
I talked to one of his brothers and was told that Barin killed himself by swallowing kerosene and the reason was an unhappy love affair.
That night I dreamt of Barin following me in a strange solitary night lit by a very pale moon, only two of us, he was walking very slowly like an invalid and trying to catch up with me. As it happens in dreams, sometime later he cought up and asked me to stop. I turned round waiting for him, he came tottering and then hugged me suddenly, I smelled kerosene on his breath and heard him whispering to me, please don’t let me go, nobody loves me.
Barin still comes back to me in my dream sometimes, though it is becoming scarcer now.
Suicide is something you and I know to be part of life but do not very well know how to face or handle if it happens within our boundary. Money, health, joblessness, sexual jealousy, impotence to achieve your desires or dreams there are so many reasons in the list. Psychiatrists will talk of mental and psycho neurotic disorders, bipolar and other problems. But the teenager who bid the world adieu to escape a poor marksheet, the groggy old lady at your street corner who takes too many sleeping pills in the middle of night writing to her son ” Son I free you from worries about your poor mom”, the young woman who became famous poet and yet saw her love life crumbling before her eyes, her poet husband going after other women for sex and company, she put her head in a winter night under the gas tube and took the inevitable, are all telling us the same story that they were alone and helpless, that they needed human affection and support, that they should have been stopped from what they were doing to themselves.
“I am terrified by the dark thing that sleeps in me. All day I feel its feathery turnings, its malignity.”….Sylvia Plath
“I am constantly torn between killing myself and killing everyone around me”……David Levithan
“But in the end one needs more courage to live than kill himself”…….Albert Camus
The feeling of dying every day, in your career and personal life, at home and outside, forces one to chose death over life. This may come from a sudden impulse born out of a feeling of emptiness or may take long to build up inside you and at the end you say, O hell, let’s get it over here and now. The candle of love is very private, it burns there day in and day out but we often do not get to feel its light and warmth sufficiently so that we can whistle away the dark thoughts. A little patience from a known friend, a little handholding from another human being can go a long way to help someone in distress, someone heading for suicide.
And why human alone? Even animals and plants can relieve one’s heightening stress and loneliness. Dogs are increasingly used in Europe and the United States to give company to the lonely and the aged people, to the physically handicapped and mentally challenged too.
Saul Bellow writes of a New York crime den where a crazy professor starts teaching poetry to the local youth and as a result the crime rate declines, the teenagers take to Shakespeare and Blake like duck takes to water, forget their fight for sex, drugs and territorry.
I spoke to a good friend who has been putting in some dedicated time and work to provide hope and support to people in distress and especially those who may attempt suicides. Her take on this is:
“Suicide is a “spiritual crime” in that we are not meant to drop out of the “school of life” as we please. Learning experiences need to be made. If we cut this life short, we will have to make those experiences somewhere else at another time.
Let’s count our blessings and all the good things that have been given to us. We never have to face anything we aren’t strong enough for. Who would want to start again from scratch, perhaps in a less favourable environment?
Be unselfish and think about those you would leave behind. Do you want to cause more suffering? Remember that many people’s hopes rest on you. Face adversity and set an example in bravery and resilience. ”
Let me conclude with the story from Agatha Christie’s Mysterious Mister Quin which must not be amiss when we are talking of suicide. The story was about a strange love affair of a Spanish girl who married an English swimmer and sportsman who loved her like a mad man. His love was genuine but it became so possessive and morbid that he would not let her go out of his sights. The jealousy made him blind and he often tortured her physically to keep her tame. This led to violent rows and the girl was falling out of love with her husband. They lived in a cottage on a creek and a violent sea down below the creek. One stormy night the husband went for a swim – he was vain to the point of absurdity, and never returned. One never knows if this was also a veiled, indirect suicide. Because the man had been suffering most intensely. He saw his love turning malignant but couldn’t stop himself. The woman got the bully out of her life by providence but she began to force herself into an isolation in the cottage perhaps due to a guilty feeling that her secret wish had in fact killed him. She lived in that cottage alone with only a maid to attend her, the windows and doors always kept closed and shuttered and no visitor entertained or accepted. Mister Quin, the symbolical harlequin who was really mysterious, appointed his human agent and friend Satterthwaite to fix things where need be. Satterthwaite was an old bachelor given to good tastes in food, lifestyle, art and music, and an insatiable curiosity about human life and its mysteries. Satterthwaite came to this house on the creek bidden by Mister Quin and after a bit of investigation by his own method came to know that a suicide was going to happen on the creek again. The woman was going to throw herself into the sea to end her agony. He was right there at that moment and told her – she was very angry because he was interrupting her plan – that the sea would return her love in a different form soon. She would be needed to care for someone whom providence would bring her way and if she took her life now that person would be orphaned, it was she who was chosen to look after him with care and love.
I will not tell you the rest, you must find it out yourself.
If some of us can remember this the world may have fewer suicides and some of the suicide failures may turn into suicide preventers themselves.
Some relevant data for my readers here below.
Suicide Statistics ( Source: World Health Organisation)
The World Health Organisation (WHO) estimates that each year approximately one million people die from suicide, which represents a global mortality rate of 16 people per 100,000 or one death every 40 seconds. It is predicted that by 2020 the rate of death will increase to one every 20 seconds.
The WHO further reports that:
In the last 45 years suicide rates have increased by 60% worldwide. Suicide is now among the three leading causes of death among those aged 15-44 (male and female). Suicide attempts are up to 20 times more frequent than completed suicides.
Although suicide rates have traditionally been highest amongst elderly males, rates among young people have been increasing to such an extent that they are now the group at highest risk in a third of all countries.
Mental health disorders (particularly depression and substance abuse) are associated with more than 90% of all cases of suicide.
However, suicide results from many complex sociocultural factors and is more likely to occur during periods of socioeconomic, family and individual crisis (e.g. loss of a loved one, unemployment, sexual orientation, difficulties with developing one’s identity, disassociation from one’s community or other social/belief group, and honour).
The WHO also states that:
In Europe, particularly Eastern Europe, the highest suicide rates are reported for both men and women.
The Eastern Mediterranean Region and Central Asia republics have the lowest suicide rates.
Nearly 30% of all suicides worldwide occur in India and China.
Suicides globally by age are as follows: 55% are aged between 15 to 44 years and 45% are aged 45 years and over.
Youth suicide is increasing at the greatest rate.
In the US, the Centre of Disease Control and Prevention reports that:
Overall, suicide is the eleventh leading cause of death for all US Americans, and is the third leading cause of death for young people 15-24 years.
Although suicide is a serious problem among the young and adults, death rates continue to be highest among older adults ages 65 years and over.
Males are four times more likely to die from suicide than are females. However, females are more likely to attempt suicide than are males.