The Deaths We Won't Hear Of by Tara Kaushal

June 2013: Last fortnight, I wrote about Jiah Khan’s high-profile suicide. Here, I talk about another suicide, a story of quiet desperation that will never make headlines.

Robin started working with our family—my parents and I—in Delhi in the early 2000s, an earnest and smart 16-year-old boy from a poverty-stricken family in a small village in Bengal. Not to be immodest, but our family has always taken care of help as well as these guidelines being issued for ‘Compassion Day’, and Robin moved cities with us—first to Chennai with my ex-husband and I, then to Dehradun for my father’s palliative care, then with me to Mumbai when dad died, mum moved to Australia and I got divorced… and finally to Hong Kong with my Aunt Alice and Uncle Romi in 2007. Here, he earned upwards of 30,000 bucks a month, making him a veritable success story in his village, a young English-speaking, Facebook-ing mover-and-shaker NRI, buying land, putting his three siblings—one brother and two sisters—through school, and breaking the vicious cycle brought on by generations of poverty. Earlier this year, when Alice and Romi moved back to Australia, he returned for a holiday before starting another job in Hong Kong, where he’d like to stay.

A few Saturday mornings ago, I awoke to a flurry of cross-country/continent phone calls—Robin’s younger sister had set herself on fire, and was critical in hospital. And this is how and why he says it happened.

A couple of months ago, Robin’s older sister was being harassed in college. When he went to “sort it out”, the siblings were beaten by a gang of goons (30, by his account). So when his younger sister, studying in the 10th standard, got recurrently 'eve teased', she didn’t tell the family. Probably thought: what’s the point? Instead, when one of the boys tried to hold her hand on the street, she came home, doused herself in kerosene, and set herself on fire. And, despite the best treatment his dollars could afford, Jharna was dead a few days later.

There are so many things wrong with this tragedy. To start with, although one reads about such things, it is hard to imagine being in circumstances so disempowering and lawless that you’d get harassed in college and on the street, and your family beaten up with impunity for seeking redress. It is hard to fathom just how socioculturally important a woman’s ‘virtue’ is, or being so indoctrinated with the burden of ones own ‘virtue’ that being 'eve teased' and touched would lead to self-blame and suicide; a far cry from the topless FEMEN protesters ‘Still Not Asking For It’ who represent the way one thinks. It is hard to reconcile with the horror of this society, this system and this situation; hard to empathise with these protagonists.

But this is reality.

Incredibly, as if this recent trauma wasn’t enough, local priests have been preying on this beleaguered family: Jharna’s ghost is apparently haunting the village, and only an expensive pooja will get rid of it, you see. The family will pay, for fear of being ostracised.

What’s worse is that Jharna’s death will remain unacknowledged, just like scores of other women’s. The media will never tell her story—unlike Jiah, Jharna was just another young girl. And Robin isn’t going to file a police complaint in the interest of communal peace (the men who 'eve teased' her are distant relatives in his small village: one is an unmarried 36-year-old who apparently ‘loved’ the teenager), particularly because he’ll leave for Hong Kong soon. In measured words he tells me, “Didi, the fight for justice is long and hard, Ma-Baba mein himmat nahi hai. And who knows what these people will do to my old parents if we pursue them.” Though he’s angry (“Maarne ka man karta hai”), he’s also stoic and reconciled—“Our family is destroyed, what will we achieve by destroying theirs now? What’s done is done.”

Since much before the Delhi Gang Rape, us armchair activists have been discussing feminism, equality, female empowerment in our living rooms and fancy cars, in our high-brow English columns, while living free, independent, liberated lives ensconced in little bubbles. Our battles are against glass ceilings, for ‘evolved’ feminist concerns like judgement-free promiscuity, maiden surnames and independent choice. When I hear stories like this one, I can’t help but wonder at the frivolity of our elite concerns, in light of the female infanticide, dowry harassment, education and social discrimination, marital rape, etc that less privileged Indian women, the majority, face. I am reminded that there are so many Indias, so many realities, so great a divide between ‘us’ and the nameless, faceless, voiceless ‘them’. And that, for the aam aurat, there are far more basic battles yet to be won. 

An edited version of this column appeared in Governance Now in June 2013.

Jiah: Self-esteem, Suicide & Suraj by Tara Kaushal

June 2013: Making sense of this heartbreak nonsense.

Over the last couple of weeks, I’d gladly have read about something else, something of more enduring importance, than Jiah Khan’s suicide and its aftermath. Instead, the story of this 25-year-old has dominated national news, and we’ve all vicariously watched the saga unfold, put her life and personality under a microscope, read her very personal suicide note and tsk-tsked about her tragedy.

Before her suicide note was found belatedly, her mother and the media placed most of the blame on her failing career, a little on her break-up with Suraj Pancholi, son of actors Aditya Pancholi and Zarina Wahab. Since its discovery and her description of heartbreak and pain, poor 22-year-old Suraj is behind bars for abetment, domestic violence and whatever else.

There is no doubt Jiah was in love. There is no doubt the relationship was tumultuous, the break-up was a bad one and Suraj behaved like a jerk through both. To be fair to him, when one analyses Jiah’s suicide note past her impassioned pain and our own haze of pity for the recently departed, she wasn’t blameless in the tumultuousness of the relationship. There was psycho-type clingy behaviour; emotional blackmail (“After all the pain, the rape, the abuse, the torture I have seen previously I didn’t deserve this”); game-playing (“I never met anyone with Karthik, I just wanted you to feel how you make me feel constantly”); hyper-sensitivity (“It hurt me so much that I waited for you for ten days and you didn’t bother buying me something”); drama (“No other woman will give you as much as I did or love you as much as I did. I can write that in my blood”); and one-sided blame for the pregnancy and abortion. Was she right to expect an out-of-work 22-year-old, clearly not finished with sowing his wild oats, whose “life was about partying and women”, to marry, have a baby? What about his right to choose who to be with, and when?

Nonetheless, none of this should have been cause enough for Jiah to take her life, or for Suraj to be considered an abettor. As much as I empathise with a 25-year-old who felt her life wasn’t worth living, there is only one person who caused the suicide: Jiah did.

What was Jiah Khan without Suraj Pancholi? According to her suicide note, she had “nothing left in this world to live for after this” and “nothing to lose”. With a little more self-esteem, she would have realised that life is greater than the sum of its parts—that love, break-up, a low phase in one’s career aren’t worth committing suicide over.

Particularly this love-shuv business. Didn’t she get the memos? That one can live a full life, with or without love, certainly with or without marriage. That we must look past our Cinderella Complexes and rom-com-ified reality to see love is not the be-all-and-end-all of life. Neither is it a cakewalk, ever-exciting, hunky-dorky or permanent. That modern singles should look for someone to compliment his/her life, not complete it, let alone subsume it (“I lost myself in loving you”). That break-ups can be painful, during which some people can take the ‘all’s fair in love and war’ adage quite literally. That there is no taboo in being single (or even dating a string of people, until someone right sticks, or doesn’t), and that being single is infinitely better than being in an abusive relationship. Hell, why would you even want to be in a relationship with someone who cheated on you, abused you and treated you the way Suraj treated you? And, instead of calling the cops on this “torturer” (does he get this from his dad?), you then kill yourself over its end, when the cerebral in you should have been celebrating? Where are your brains, where is your self-esteem, woman, I ask again. "Power is being told you are not loved and not being destroyed by it," said Madonna. Where is the power that should have lay within you?

What worries me is that suicide is known to be contagious, especially to highly susceptible teens. There must be some gullible little girls out there who glorified Jiah’s achievements, as meagre as she thought they were. She debuted opposite Amitabh Bachchan, for heaven’s sake, and starred in a blockbuster opposite Aamir Khan! She had time to regain lost glory, she was only 25. Unlike Britney Spears and other troubled stars’ well-documented descent in to chaos, there were no chips in her public image, though it may have lost a little sheen. What message have these little girls received from the suicide of an apparently happy, successful-ish star? Particularly the despair-filled suicide note, that I'm not sure her mother should have released to the media.

A traditional stereotype of a heartbreak-based Madhubala-esque tragic heroine is now reinforced: even someone like Jiah could believe her life was not worth living without the love of a man, however abusive. And even she, a modern, ‘liberated’ woman didn’t seek help—family, friends, counselling—when she clearly needed it, so how does one encourage a lovesick teenager to reach out?

I have been watching the comings and goings of the Pancholi house from my balcony, replete with police and media. Fortunately, at the time of going to press, sense seemed to be dawning, and the case of abetment against Suraj will probably be dropped. On the assumption that he just wanted to break-up, not have her die, this makes sense: he’s behaved mean-spirited and badly, but certainly not illegally. The domestic abuse charges might stick, to prove a point, though they will be hard to prove in court. 

Jiah said Suraj destroyed her life. In her death, she has seriously impacted his—young still, his name will forever be associated with this tragedy, replete with the judgement and/or pity. Spoilt star child or not, unless there’s a serious psychopath hiding under his stoic exterior, he’s shaken up, both about Jiah personally, and the police and media aspects. Let’s just let him go.

An edited version of this column appeared in Governance Now in June 2013.