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2

Suicide is a taboo subject for conversation. Particularly what makes a person want to commit suicide or what to say in the face of their pain.

“A man devoid of hope and conscious of being so has ceased to belong to the future.”
― Albert Camus, The Myth of Sisyphus and Other Essays

Suicide is a subject almost everyone has thought of at some point or the other. Almost everyone has wondered what it would be like to end our own life or how it could be done without confronting the great fear - pain, suffocation or other discomforts. Yet suicide remains a taboo subject. The feelings behind suicide. What makes someone commit suicide. We can talk statistics or prevention or helplines, but in the face of actual pain that drives a person to suicide, we have no skills. There is a difference between contemplating suicide and planning to commit suicide. An important one. The first is a fairly common and natural response to unbearable negative emotions. The other is an irreversible action.

I admit I have often considered suicide. I have written about suicide before too. From a perspective of statistics, from a perspective of understanding widespread distress needing political answers, from a perspective of empathy when I read about suicide, from a perspective of failing to support and grieving when someone I know commits suicide and I have also considered suicide as an option to end my own life when I was very sad. Yet, whenever I have tweeted about the subject, I have immediately got responses that amount to stopstopstopstopstopstopstopstopSTOP! It is so immediate that it would be hilarious if the subject were not grave. I have got helpline numbers as replies, I have got advice to not let dark thoughts enter my mind.

Hello! I write and tweet and comment and contemplate issues of human rights abuse. How in the world can one do that without having any dark thoughts? If I were planning to commit suicide, why would I be tweeting instead of finding myself a rope? I understand that it can sometimes be a cry for help by a distraught person, but if the rest of the words are perfectly normal, where is the harm in reading to find out what is being said?

Because here is the thing. Even if a person were tweeting about suicide publicly as a last ditch call for attention and help, the last thing they'd need is to be told to shut up or a sea of platitudes. What they would be needing is an empathetic listener who cares.

What exactly is this fear of talking about suicides?

“The thought of suicide is a great consolation: by means of it one gets through many a dark night.”
― Friedrich Nietzsche

I admit I have spent a great deal of time contemplating committing suicide over the years. As in killing myself. I have been in unhappy relationships involving heartbreak, I've been in an abusive marriage with an alcoholic, I've been a broke single mother of a disabled child. Despair and depression are no strangers. And yet I am here, typing this post.

I have actually found thinking about suicide in great detail helpful. Instead of fearing the pain of death (and thus possibly taking a rash step "while I have the courage" maybe after a glass or two of vodka), I've gone and researched methods of suicide. What would cause the least pain? What are the consequences of failure? What is the best method so that it causes least pain and least risk of failing and living with permanent damage? And anyone who knows me knows that when I say research, I mean obsessive information finding till I am convinced I know the subject in and out without actual experience. Enough to make a very well considered decision. On and off, when I'm in utter despair, I've gone and rechecked all the information. And yet here I am, typing all this.

Is this a guarantee I will never commit suicide? No. But it pretty much guarantees that I have given it thorough thought and not found it a better tradeoff for now. It guarantees that if I do it, it will not be a thoughtless impulse, but a decision I take about my life after considering all options I have.

So how has contemplating suicide helped me?

By giving me an option. By giving me an exit from the pain. By giving me the concrete information that if all this gets unbearable, I still have the option to exit. In the process, a miracle happens. I am no longer cornered by my despair. I always have the cheat route out. And because I know that, I am never out of options. I lose the fear of making attempts to change my circumstances that could fail.  Just allowing myself to spend time thinking about ending myself is a catharsis. If no one else, at least I am acknowledging how bad things are. I am listening to myself. It helps me feel heard. It gives me a vocabulary for describing my situation when asking for help. No, I don't mean "I am suicidal, help me or else." I mean "This, this and this is the reason for my despair. I am not able to see functional ways out. I need help." - because hello, I've gone through all the reasons in my contemplation and have them now sorted out in my head.

And sometimes, in a very cynical way, the contemplations have saved me. If I don't care whether I live or die, why not try this one last thing or the other? If I hit a dead end, I can always die.

“Killing myself was a matter of such indifference to me that I felt like waiting for a moment when it would make some difference.”
― Fyodor Dostoyevsky, The Dream of a Ridiculous Man

Here is an example how. When I was younger, my emotions were more volatile. Taking what I felt seriously and giving it serious thought helped me see things more clearly and invariably, I ended up thinking that if there was any hope, I could use it and if there wasn't, well, I could always die. But the well thought out option being there and not at any threat of being taken off the table gave me the confidence to know I could opt for it any time and there was no need to do it right now. I could afford to wait and see. I am truly grateful no one immediately tried to stop me at such times, or I'd have been tempted to use the opportunity before someone blocked it from me.

Now I am older. I have a young disabled child. Whoever knows me knows that I'd chew my arm off before I allowed anything to harm him. Well, losing a mom would definitely harm him. So suicide is totally not an option any more. At least while he is alive. He needs me. Period. Again, if I hadn't thought this through, I could have been at risk of giving up without considering the impact.

In some of my more selfish and melodramatic ways, I've even thought "What will be, will be" If I am not there, someone or the other will care for my son, though I can't imagine who, right now. But then, in such a melodramatic moment, the desire is also to leave a lasting mark on the world when I die. And oops, it is not "orphaned kid in moment of despair". I'd like to be remembered for something better, thank you very much.

Whatever it is. Others may have their own reasoning. Still others may come to a well considered decision that suicide is actually a good choice for them, When my father was dying of Parkinson's, he had the option of looking forward to an indeterminate bed ridden existence with little control over his body, being bored out of his wits and too exhausted to do anything about it but to wait to die. He begged me to kill him almost every week. It is illegal and I have two more dependents, or I would definitely have arranged for him to be freed as per his will if it were legal. Others do it out of poverty. Starvation. When the alternative is to live in debt and watch your family suffer with no hope of ever providing for them in sight, it can be a brutal life to look forward to, and death may simply be a matter of running out of the ability to fight.

“Let them think what they liked, but I didn't mean to drown myself. I meant to swim till I sank -- but that's not the same thing.”
― Joseph Conrad, The Secret Sharer and other stories

Whatever it is, however it plays out, a suicide is not about dying or exiting the world, it is about escaping unbearable torment. A person who feels unheard and uncared for, is unlikely to respond to a panicked flood of platitudes that s/he has heard a hundred times that drowns their voice all over again, even in the contemplation of death.

How agonized we are by how people die. How untroubled we are by how they live. ~ P. Sainath

My suggestion is that we all examine what this fear is that stops us from listening on hearing that word. Because the lives of many around us could depend on how we respond to their pain. If someone has made a well considered decision to die, there isn't much we can do about it, but if someone is screaming into a void of despair, perhaps us offering a listening ear will give them the space to be heard, and in the process get a clearer view of their situation.

What do you think?

40

Why don't I support ban on caste discrimination? For the same reasons as I don't support the ban on sex determination. In the words of Einstein "We can't solve problems by using the same kind of thinking we used when we created them."

That is the short answer. The rest of the post is the elaboration.

Discrimination is a social problem. Fixing a social problem with legal restrictions only creates problems. Without uniform enforcement, it cannot help with the more vicious manifestations - the real concern. It is the left-brain right brain thing. Or the reason why quitting smoking is so difficult and logic loses to feeling or why drug control is an eternal battle. It is how human beings function.

My suspicion is that we as a society didn't want any change, and didn't have the guts to refuse to change. So we put in systems that wouldn't work. Some of the worst discriminatory crimes have been committed with government support. Be them the Sikh riots or the Gujarat carnage. Does that sound like we wanted discrimination to go away? Those differences exist. Solidly.

Expecting them to go away is folly, and actually a bad idea. We are diverse people. Our diversity is part of our individuality, our identity. The trouble is not in belonging to a caste, but in hurtful actions being excused by it. Like a rape is excused through clothes. It is an excuse. There are hideous crimes committed irrespective of caste too. It is a mindset that accepts violence as a response. You can't ban it. There is a need to challenge it, suggest more functional ways of being and invite people to revise their understanding. Refusing to engage, or thinking "some people will never change" is futile. It is the only way. Energy is better spent thinking "okay, this didn't work, what will?"

Painting caste as evil has created confusion and blanket rejection of culture for many people and an arrogant rejection of the rules by others. No matter what society you have, it will have a structure. There will be powerful people and less powerful people. Calling structures evil is missing the woods for the trees. Removing them leaves a vacuum that is further exploited to create new opportunistic structures that are not necessarily kinder than older ones, nor are they thought out with the effort of ages.

We live in hundreds of hierarchies - all co-existing simultaneously. A child has less authority than parents, a worker is less powerful than an industrialist, etc. Hierarchies are a functional fact of life. It isn't something that dropped from an alien planet. Somewhere down the line, ideas of equality were imposed on these structures when it comes to caste. Equality is a myth. There is no equality. The most we can hope for is getting rid of dysfunctions and offering equal attention or "public facilities". A large part of the demonization of the caste system was that our colonizers didn't understand it. The Brits had a problem with caste hierarchies (of course, they would otherwise be outcastes in the land they ruled 😛 - just saying), but they had their own hierarchies. You only need to read the mind numbing protocols - what were they, if not tokens to hierarchy? A lot of perceived rigidity is (I think) the Brit opinion, because they came from a society where the protocols were extremely rigid on the smallest matters to big things. I also sometimes think that their own frustration in their system added to their criticisms of ours - we see reality through a filter of our own experiences, they did too.

In having a goal to wipe out caste, we put before ourselves a safely impossible task. I say safely, because if something is impossible, then you don't have to do it, no? Quite safe to claim it then and later throw out a "I tried my best".

On the other hand, the ban damages its own cause. Like you won't listen to anyone telling you not to love someone, you won't listen to anyone telling you not to hate someone. You may pretend good behaviour, but you don't like them. Others may attack the object of hate - and it can be more a retaliation at the expectation/imposition that you don't hate them, than anything they did. It will definitely amplify ill will. Witness the caste atrocities happening now, search for them in history. From barring access to wells and considering touch impure, we have gone to outright killing. In a time when burning women on their husband's pyres was routine, where are the mass killings of lower castes? We have developed those by forcing "equality" and negating individuality. So everyone is in everyone's space. Our law has not functioned as intended. As our other laws attempting social change through regimentation fail. And the superiority-inferiority thing continues anyway. How is this an improvement?

A real life joke, but worth reflecting on.

A dalit acquaintance is rich. He always hires Brahmin cooks to be assured of the best quality.

The heart can find a new love/hate, it cannot understand rules. The brain learns, but in a battle with the heart, it is rare for the brain to win or create change beyond the attention span. Emotions are fundamental to our existence. We can't do a damn thing without a feeling or need being associated with it. We can do many things without thinking. There is no way thinking can outpower emotions. Yeah, all ye, who say "I go by the brain", you're lying - you go by your emotion - fear - of the vulnerability of being known to be ruled by emotion. Not lying actually, you are not aware.

Laws, thus will not work to change social thought. It will only help people put things under the carpet so that they can't be addressed easily. Laws can present deterrence, but not if there are so many laws that they no longer feel threatening. And we have a vast number of impotent laws.

The other way the ban harms the cause is by removing expectations and responsibility from the people. If there is a law in place, people have something to point to. It is not their problem. "Oh! we fixed that. We have a law. The police will manage the rest. It is their problem now. Interfering will only complicate matters. I will sit and watch." In the process, we lose something that has actually proven effective at social change - the capacity of a group to self-evolve. Throughout the history of caste, there have been those who challenged it. From Buddha and Mahavira to Meera bai, Dnyaneshwar, Kabir, Guru Nanak, Swami Vivekananda, Ramananda, Jyotirao Phule, Mannathu Padmanabham.... many, many people. They did it by introducing new thought into the society. By inspiring. By role modeling the desired values. The same way that women's reform happened, with education, sati, child marriage, widow remarriage.... read your history text books. They didn't need laws to change society. They did it through influencing minds and it worked

So what can be done? One thing is clear, the ban can't be removed. While creating it was a bad idea, removing it will be an altogether different intervention that will imply carte blanche on discrimination. Bad, bad idea. Now that it is here, we must work with it in place. For now at least, till people are ready to be cohesive without. However, there are other things we can do.

India is currently fractured. A law is separate from a social message is separate from activism is separate from government subsidies/support, is different from media influence.... our thought processes are silos even if they address the exact same problem. We need to move out of this. If there is a law banning caste discrimination (for example, because of our article subject), it is useful for public service messages to address issues of caste, with well crafted messages with assistance from social scientists. Data from the ground could be used to guide government subsidies in moving away from a discrimination we are trying to abolish - for example, replacing reservations based on circumstances of birth with support to empower achievement based on need for support identified in more practical ways. No reason why a poor Brahmin shouldn't get free books a rich Dalit might. This is discrimination too! Social scientists spend a lot of thought in such things, they should be engaged in all facets of influencing people to enable cohesive, empowering and life affirming growth of thought, rather than regimentation.

The other part of this aid is that it shouldn't be about different standards of merit. Not just because it dilutes the "intellectual standards" of professional ability or deprives more deserving candidates (I think that's bullshit), but because it undermines the dignity of those helped among peers. It becomes an embarrassing mark of "state favoritism for the undeserving" which is totally false. A student scoring 89% marks can't really be called stupid just because others scored 92. But that is an immediate association - that they didn't deserve something and were given it while depriving more deserving people. This is not going to win friends and influence people. Worse, because many may even have got admissions without the prop, but have to suffer the indignity to their reputation anyway because they fit the criteria.

No one listens to the surname of a Dalit doctor and asks him if he got admissions on merit or reservation - he's a villain both ways. If he got it on merit, he's not a good enough doctor, and if he got it on reservation, he occupied a seat meant for "regular people" rather than using the quota. This is actually a confused kind of discrimination with no traditional outlet. It has nothing to do with the poor doctor, and everything to do with the speaker who needs excuses to say what he now can't say directly "I don't like Dalits". If he were free to say that, it would be easy to discuss and invite change, but now it is wrapped in a lot of pseudo-logic which though selective is factual and can't be disputed, so getting to the reason for the need to use that logic is tough.

Instead, there ought to be social outreach to provide support for achievement for those who need it, and the need needs better identifiers than circumstances of birth. This may mean books, tutions, or it could even mean good clothes to wear for an interview. But it shouldn't be something that makes achievement easier and marks them forever as "people who got it easy" - which is also false. It is not easy to get difficult admissions just because a few numbers are lower. More than that, we can then assist everyone who needs it without needing special records and quotas. Regardless of caste, race, whatever.

Also, these changes need to be gradual and purposeful. For example a shift from reservations to enabling merit in open admissions could be done by first providing support and withdrawing reservations as the cut-off percentages start becoming similar. We aren't trying to abandon people here.

We need to work to change minds. Without that, no law will ever do anything. Like sex-determination is the method used to act upon the desire for a female child, so is this. And like sex determination, the problem is not in the method, but the desire to apply it. Block one method, and the inherent adaptability of the human being will ensure that we will never

We need to move away from the legal thinking to social thinking. What is it that bothers a Brahmin about a Dalit today? How is it dysfunctional? How can we change the thinking around the dysfunctional areas? How can we raise awareness about discrimination itself - how favoring one over the other can be dysfunctional? We need thought leaders and reformers, not police unless there is crime. There needs to be much done on a routine basis - support and empowerment structures created - without waiting for crime so that action may be taken.

Today, we have resources people like Jyotiba Phule never did. We have thinkers coming out of the woodwork. The internet has transformed the concept of thought leaders. We have the means to throw thoughts out into the remotest regions of the country. Remember "With DTH we now have the capacity to reach every household in the country", etc. We have the ability to create powerful narratives that practically take zero effort to deliver once created - films, for example. So why are we still not touching the thinking, and abdicating all responsibility to some obscure law? The battlefield for this particular war is in minds, not police stations.

I think, the real question is what makes us hang on to our prejudices so tenaciously? Why do we not make EFFECTIVE efforts? Failed doesn't cut it over decades. It only means no serious effort was made.

Can we forget about banning discrimination, and simply focus on integrating all our drifting folks?