Home / Mint-lounge / Features /  No one should weep alone

I am inhabited by a cry.

Nightly it flaps out

Looking, with its hooks, for

something to love.

—Sylvia Plath, Elm.

Late at night many, many years ago, the old green phone rang loudly in my Bombay house. I stumbled sleepily downstairs to answer, and heard a dear friend mumbling incoherently. I snapped awake when I realized what she was saying: “I took a whole bottle of pills, yaar, I don’t feel good, can I come?" Twenty minutes later, a rickshaw pulled up and she fell out.

She is fine today, happy with her life, her work and her family. But that night was hell. After my family doctor shut the door in our faces, we realized nobody was going to help us. I forced her to stay up, and to throw up, and after lots of vomiting and drama, we both finally slept. She went home the next day and never tried it again.

Imagine getting to the point where you’re in so much pain or despair that it’s worth giving up your life. I’ve known terrible times, but never felt like that. Perhaps you have. My friend only felt it once, and is lucky that her attempt didn’t work.

I don’t have a point of view on suicide—whether it’s wrong or right, whether it’s a sin or an inconsiderate act or a cowardly one. I know we are all responsible for our own lives. So why am I writing about it? Because if I hadn’t happened to answer the phone, my friend might have died and that would have been a tragedy. I’m writing to remind us all that despite W.H Auden’s chilling statement, “Every eye must weep alone," we are not, in fact, alone in this world and we must keep our eyes open to each other’s pain. At 17, none of us did that for Maggie.

Maggie lived in my freshman dorm at college. We were all giddy, hormonal teenagers let loose on our own for the first time, and Maggie seemed the giddiest of all. She had a beautiful voice and would walk down the hall singing loudly and beaming at all and sundry. She didn’t really socialize with the rest of us but she always seemed happy. Then, over winter break, when the rest of us were home with our families, she took a whole lot of drugs, crawled into her electric blanket, and deliberately electrocuted herself. Turns out everyone in her family had died of cancer and she just couldn’t bear it any more. Not one of us, who all lived within a few feet of her, had the faintest suspicion.

Could we have stopped Maggie? I have no idea. But we never tried, because we were young and silly, and because she hid herself well behind the singing and the smiles.

A recent BBC story commented on the fact that in 2014, more than 20,000 Indian housewives (according to the National Crime Records Bureau) committed suicide, but although this number was four times higher than the tragic suicides of farmers, it hardly got any press. These deaths are not all necessarily the result of violence, poverty or illness. Some are like my friend—a moment of despair about a bad marriage, an impulsive act, and if it works, khalas, no more. No more chances, no more time, no more mangoes, no more pain.

The World Health Organization’s 2014 report, “Preventing Suicide: A Global Imperative", states that every 40 seconds, someone somewhere dies by suicide. Moonlight on water, the care of loved ones, the chance of change…none of these is enough to keep them alive. In the US, guns are the most common method. In India, poisoning leads the way.

Lakshmi Vijayakumar wrote last year in the Indian Journal of Psychiatry: “Suicide is a global public health problem. Asia accounts for 60% of the world’s suicides, so at least 60 million people are affected by suicide or attempted suicide in Asia each year. The burden of female suicidal behaviour, in terms of total burden of morbidity and mortality combined, is more in women than in men. Women’s greater vulnerability to suicidal behaviour is likely to be due to gender related vulnerability to psychopathology and to psychosocial stressors…. One of the most consistent findings in suicide research is that women make more suicide attempts than men, but men are more likely to die in their attempts than women. Despite this, remarkably few studies have focused upon suicidal behaviour in women or attempted to explore the complex relationships between gender and suicidal behaviour. One reason for the lack of investment in female suicidal behaviour may be that there has been a tendency to view suicidal behaviour in women as manipulative and non-serious (despite evidence of intent, lethality, and hospitalization), to describe their attempts as ‘unsuccessful’, ‘failed’, or attention-seeking, and generally to imply that women’s suicidal behaviour is inept or incompetent."

There’s lots of advice out there for people who feel suicidal—hotlines, platitudes, books, magic pills to make you happy. I can’t add to that: Any cheery clueless thing I say would be insulting in the face of such despair. But for those of us who are lucky enough not to be teetering on that abyss, I do have something to say: We all have a moral responsibility to each other. We might not have the ability or the right to stop someone from taking his or her own life, but we must be sure they know that we are here, we see them, we are standing next to them, breathing with them and holding on to them in case they need that extra moment to step away from the abyss.

No eye should weep alone.

Sohaila Abdulali is a New York-based writer. She writes a fortnightly column on women in the 21st century.

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