You’ve been there. You’ve felt: Why me? Why is it always me? What can this mean? What can this matter? Why carry on? You’ve thought about the ways and means of it: Where can I get the pills? Will it hurt much? And can it hurt any more than I am hurting now? And, then, something held you back. What was it? The sigh of a child turning in sleep, the uninflected love of a dog, the thought of the mess you would leave behind? Something held you back. Those roots that bind us, those ties that hold us, some of them are of our own making, some of them are accidents.
Robin Williams was in freefall, then, when he looped that belt and hanged himself. Ask not for whom the bell tolls, John Donne said, it tolls for thee. The Torah reminds us that each man is a universe, each death the erasure of a universe. When someone chooses to erase himself or herself — and it seems more men kill themselves than women — he or she seems to be saying: there was nothing left to hold me. You were not enough. Love was not enough. Money was not enough. Nor was fame. Nothing was enough to keep me here.
That’s a terrible message to receive, and it makes those who receive it angry. And, so, the residue of suicide is terrifying because it is a mix of two of our most potent emotions: grief and rage. They are also much longer-lasting. They come with guarantees: you will struggle with these emotions for a long time to come. ‘You’re gone,’ we scream at the departed, ‘and I’m here, and it’s as if you announced that I was not enough reason to stay.’ This is where it comes from: the accusation that suicides are selfish people, thinking only of themselves.
But the suicide is accused in absentia. The successful ones aren’t there to defend themselves. It is those who fail who must bear the brunt of this anger, some of it muted by love, some of it unspoken because we all want to be seen as sympathetic. Those who try to kill themselves and fail are shrugged off as ‘cries for help’, demonised as ‘sinners’ by many organised religions, and subjected to an almost complete loss of privacy thereafter. In India, the problem is compounded by the law: the person who attempts suicide is criminalised by an old statute that was kept on the books by the State in order to take those who fast unto death into custody and force-feed them and thus deny them the moral victory of martyrdom. Irom Sharmila is still in jail because she has been protesting military law in her state and she will stay there, and the statute will stay on the books.
These are the two problems of a suicide. Love is a great gift. It makes you truly human to love someone else. You are forced out of the shell of the self and into an exchange with another. You give, but only because you want to give. Like all other great gifts, it comes with a codicil. Love makes you vulnerable to hurt for no one can hurt you so much as a person whom you love. And, in our brave new world, it would seem we have more time for those we hate than those we love. Think about the last argument you had with a bigot. How much time and effort you spent on that intractable sumbitch. Do you remember how you kept thinking of other arguments you could have offered? How the train of thought dogged you when you reached home? How it surfaced at odd moments and disrupted sudden stretches of calm? And, now, compare that to the amount of time you put into a birthday message to a beloved.
For nothing focuses the mind so much as the death of a loved one. What is brought into focus, however, does not seem to be the life that has been ended, but the ways in which you failed the person you cared for: the phone calls left unmade, the letters unwritten, the dinners skipped, the meals uncooked. This may reveal something troubling about our relationship with suicide: it stops being about the lonely, tormented person who wanted out. To grief and rage, add guilt, carefully concealed.
Jerry Pinto is the author of the prize-winning novel Em and the Big Hoom (Aleph), a novel in which a Mumbai-based family tries to cope with Em, who suffers from bipolar disorder that often makes her try to take her own life.