Doctors, nurses, family members—all had the same question: Did she feel the pain?
Maheshwari remembers anxious faces leaning over her, peppering her with questions, even as she struggled to put together where she was and why.
“No pain,” she managed to tell someone wearing a white coat and a stethoscope. He had a thick moustache and grey hair and frequently checked his phone while he spoke to her; she didn’t like that. “I don’t feel anything,” she told him, forcing her lips to form words, like dragging a spoon through heavy batter.
She didn’t know why she was there, and no one would explain it to her for several days as she moved in and out of restless consciousness. Later, a nurse gently told her: You tried to commit suicide four days ago. You poured kerosene on yourself and set yourself on fire. Your brother found you and managed to put it out the fire. You have burns all over your body. Do you remember why you did it?
This was in 2007 and Maheshwari was 18. Her father worked in the fish market in their adopted home of Pondicherry—they relocated from Trichy when her older brother Velan was a child—and her mother worked as a housemaid and helped out at the fish market. They were poor, but had a one-room house and managed to send their children to school.
She was a quiet, self-absorbed girl, “she was always very polite but did not speak much,” says Velan. “She was a pretty girl. Her hair was very long, reaching till her back, and she and our mother were very proud of it. She’d spend a long time every morning in plaiting it and then our mother would wrap mallipoo (jasmine) around it.”
Velan is tall and thin; his fingers knead into each other as he speaks, and he is clearly uncomfortable with articulating private tragedies of his family. “She was very pretty with very long hair,” he says again. “She lost her hair after the first time though.”
In 2007, Maheshwari fell in love with a classmate who returned her affections. Neighbours told her parents that she and he were seen cycling together and speaking. The parents weren’t happy. “They didn’t approve that she was seeking out men without their blessing, they wanted her to get married but they wanted to be the ones to find the boy,” says Velan. “There was a lot of crying and shouting. Everyone got involved because we lived in a very small community.”
In the midst of all the tears and threats, Maheshwari went into the garden. It was a sweltering day in August of 2007, and she went alone, dressed in a red sari and carrying two things: a bottle of kerosene and a matchbox. Her hair was neatly plaited but her mother had refused to wrap jasmine around it that morning.
Under the beating sun, Maheshwari poured the kerosene on herself and lit a match. Fifteen minutes later, her brother went into the garden to look for her and found her, partially engulfed with flames. Velan covers his face as he speaks about it, digging the tips of his fingers into his eyes like he’s blinding himself.
“The upper half of her body was on fire. The doctor later told me that she had not used enough kerosene. She was in agony; it was agony for me to see her. I rubbed handfuls of earth onto her until the fire disappeared. She was screaming and crying. Her sari was still on fire and I tried to pull the cloth away but the skin came along with it.”
He moves his hands from his face and claws at the table he is sitting at. “It was agony.” When Maheshwari woke up at the Jawaharlal Institute of Postgraduate Medical Education and Research (JIPMER) hospital in Pondicherry, she repeatedly told the doctors she felt no pain. Dr R. Neelakantan made a note in her hospital record: “Feels no pain. Third degree burns.”
Third-degree burn victims typically feel no pain in the first few days. The flames had destroyed the pain receptors in Maheshwari’s skin along with the epidermis. Her face, arms, and neck required skin grafts, and she felt no pain for six days. On the seventh day the pain returned. She says it felt like she was on fire again.
In 2012-2013, 1,35,799 people committed suicide in India, according to the National Crime Records Bureau (NCRB). Maharashtra topped the list of states with the highest number of suicides, recording 16,622 deaths; Tamil Nadu was a second at 16,601. Both states’ share of total suicides in the country stood at 12.3 per cent each. This was a minor change from the previous years, when Tamil Nadu had the highest number of suicides in 2010 and 2012.
The suicide rate is a better tool of comparison, given that Maharashtra has a much larger population than Tamil Nadu. The suicide rate is defined as the incidence of suicides per 1,00,000 population. In 2013, Pondicherry held the highest suicide rate of 35.6. Maharashtra’s was 14.3 and Tamil Nadu’s was 24.3. The national average rate stood at 11.
The NCRB lists 22 reasons for suicide: family problems (24 per cent), illness (19.6 per cent), love affairs (3.3 per cent), dowry dispute (1.7 per cent), drug abuse or addiction (3.4 per cent), and poverty (1.4 per cent), among others. “We manually record each cause for death on a case-by-case basis, and we try and group each death under a blanket reason,” explains R. Manikandan, a statistician at the State Crime Records Bureau (SCRB) of Tamil Nadu. “Only if the reason is documented can steps later be taken to try and tackle the social issue that causes the person to commit suicide. However, at least 15 per cent of the total is from unknown causes. When no note is left, and no reason is given, we cannot map it.”
In 2013, 9,964 people across the country committed suicide by fire/self-immolation. Of these, 6,692 were women, over 63 per cent of the total. Tamil Nadu accounted for 2,098 self-immolation deaths—over 20 per cent of all self-immolation deaths in the country—the highest for a state, making it India’s self-immolation capital.
Out of the total suicides in Tamil Nadu, 12.6 per cent were by self-immolation. Women accounted for 1,261 deaths making up 60 per cent of all self-immolation deaths in the state. There is no record of the number of people try to immolate themselves, but professionals dealing with such cases say the number would be many times over the reported cases.
Hanging is the most common method of suicide; 39.8 per cent of all suicides in the country happen through hanging. This is followed by poisoning at 27.9 per cent. Self-immolation owns 7.4 per cent of the total and is the third largest method adopted. A break-up of these cases based on reasons is unavailable. Popular conception is that most self-immolation deaths are driven by activism; SCRB officials and hospital staff say this is untrue.
“It’s love failure, depression, unemployment, resistance to marriage,” says Dr Anand Pillai, a psychiatrist in Chennai. “Many victims of rape attempt self-immolation; many succeed.” He says that the suicide rate in Tamil Nadu is a cause for concern, but points out that statistics should not be taken at face value. “What is to be kept in mind is that the suicide rate is high, and the number of people dying is high,” he says. “The comparison and ranking of states based on this is dubious at best. Lakshadweep has seen a 200 per cent increase in suicides between 2012 and 2013. That sounds alarming, doesn’t it? That’s the screaming headline on a newspaper. Then you read further and learn that the number of suicides in Lakshadweep increased from 1 to 3. You need to keep things in perspective. There needs to be a national movement to prevent suicide, not a yearly debate on just the numbers.”
Tamil Nadu’s culture and literature hold a special place for self-immolation: death by fire forms a chapter in itself. Numerous stories build the narrative of fire as a cleansing spirit, fire as a form of protest, fire as a statement of intent and finality.
D. Jayakumar is a professor of Tamil literature in Chennai, and one of his pet subjects is self-immolation. About 55 years old, with a tidy grey beard and a high forehead, he says that history has been versionised to speak of self-immolation with reverence.
“One version is seen in one of the great Tamil epics, Silappatikaram, the story of Kannagi,” he says. “Her husband died due to a miscarriage of justice and she went on to extract her revenge by setting the city of Madurai on fire. What is important is that Kannagi was a strong woman who demanded justice; what is remembered, unfortunately, is the claim that she was a good wife, a chaste wife, a wife who chose to cleanse the world by fire for wrongdoings against her husband. The fire that burned, for Kannagi, is seen not as a fire of justice, but a fire of purity. This is further fuelled by Sita’s trial by fire in the Ramayana. She is rejected by her husband as being impure, and she proves herself by passing through agni. This form of chastity by fire is pinpointed as the reason for many women resorting to self-immolation.”
Jayakumar says that the historical act of sati also has a long-lasting imprint on the perception of the cleansing fire. In his paper “Sati in the Ancient Tamil Literature”, researcher K. V. Ramakrishna Rao writes about various works of Tamil and Sangam literature and their references to sati. He writes about Perungopendu, the wife of Butappandiyan, who, after the death of her husband, said, “I am prepared to take a different bed in the crematory grounds. For me, the pond with blossomed lotus and the fire with flames are one and the same.”
He says this overwhelmingly female influence is mirrored in statistics today. Unlike all other methods of suicide, more women than men die in self-immolation. In India; over 63 per cent of victims are female.
Mathangi Devanathan, a Ph. D. scholar in the United States, has been researching self-immolation in Tamil Nadu as part of her research work. “Sangam literature is full of instances of death by self-immolation, usually by women, such as the poetry of Tholkappiyam and Kazhattalaiyar. More all-encompassing is the martial suicide practised in Tamil Nadu: the suicide of a warrior on the death of a king, the suicidal attitude of soldiers going to war, suicide to prove honour. It was seen during the time of the Cheras, and is now synonymous with words like loyalty, honour, purity—words that can move people to drastic acts, thinking it’s a form of statement.”
Devanathan says these forms of suicide are usually intended as calls for attention, or acts of demonstration. “It’s an announcement of right, of absolution; it’s meant to prove one’s honesty through death by fire. This leads to, it’s believed, a form of glorification, even celebration. “The media doesn’t follow guidelines on the reporting of suicide and the result is copycat suicides. Many people died this way for the Eelam cause in Tamil Nadu; words like ‘hero’ and ‘died for the cause’ were used in describing them. Mental health is fragile. When suicide is described as heroic, as an escape, as a means to an end, it can justify the need to take one’s own life.”
Tamil cinema, says Jayakumar, plays a role in the perception of suicide and mental illness. “Kollywood today is more real, more gritty, moving towards angry young men struggling with real battles. However, there’s a tendency to slip into the same stereotypes. A person with mental illness is gloomy, suicidal, with the characteristics of a psychopath. A person who commits suicide does so for glory, revenge or ‘escape’. Whether intended or otherwise, this creates the impression that it can be a natural act, a necessary act.”
It’s 8 a.m. at the burn ward at Royapettah General Hospital in Chennai—the city’s largest peripheral hospital—and the small square room is already bustling with activity. The waiting room is already full of family members and patients on follow-up visits—several people squat on the floor, fanning themselves vigorously. Two patients have been brought in for treatment an hour ago—one for accidental burns received from a house fire and the other for third-degree burns after a gas explosion at home—and the air is heavy with the smell of Dettol and antiseptics.
Ramkumar Kathirasan is the doctor on duty today. At 62 years old, he’s seen thousands of patients pass through the hospital’s portals, and he says at least one in 10 of his patients have self-inflicted burn wounds.
“It’s a terrible thing but for self-immolation victims, the tragedy is when they are brought in,” he says. “I don’t think victims realise the depth of pain they are embarking on when they set themselves on fire. There are so many cases of victims desperately trying to reverse what they’ve done; the pain is too great to bear.”
Psychiatrist Lakshmi Venugopal describes self-immolation as “sheer agony”, a level of pain that the human body is, in many cases, not equipped to handle. “We’ve seen that many cases who consider suicide stop at the logistics stage—the actual purchase of paraphernalia to end their own lives, whether it’s buying poison, sleeping tablets. Hanging is the most often-used method of suicide in the country only because of the lack of necessity to purchase materials. Self-immolation is the same, but the trauma that victims go through before death is heart-breaking.”
The skin has many layers and damage is based on the intensity of the burn. The epidermis is damaged in a first-degree burn: something similar to sunburn where the skin reddens and is tender, but there is no severely wounded tissue. Second-degree burns affect the entire epidermis, leading to blisters and reddening of the skin which varies in intensity depending on the extent of damage. Healing takes time but usually occurs with minimal scarring after two weeks.
A third-degree burn destroys the entire epidermal layer. Pain receptors are often destroyed— which is why many victims initially feel no pain—along with blood vessels and skin glands. As the burn penetrates, most victims face acute loss of fluid and their metabolic rates are affected. The body is unable to repair the damage itself, requiring skin grafts and surgery. In rare cases, bone and muscle are damaged, which, in some cases, is inoperable. This burn is also called full thickness: the skin is damaged to an extent that it becomes thick and leathery.
“Many victims do not realise the extent of pain,” repeats Dr Kathirasan. “They try water, rubbing soil, anything to put out the flames. It’s agony. The deeper the burn, the worse the injury. Internal organs are charred, tissue is extensively damaged across the body; if the victim is on fire for more than an hour, bones become stumps. However full charring is unusual in fires at home or outdoors because the fire cannot sustain at that level of heat for too long.”
Survivors of self-immolation have a long road ahead, says Dr Kathirasan. Not only do they have to go through extensive surgery, but rehabilitation into society is difficult. “There is extensive scarring, and scars are usually permanent; puckering of the skin; loss of some faculty like partial vision or movement; acute psychological trauma. General hospitals will have a psychiatrist on call but there is very little association between the psychiatrist and the poorer patients. They don’t have the time, resources or inclination to return for periodic sessions. Even if they did, it would be one psychiatrist for about 100 patients, because in an ideal world, family members would go through counselling too.”
Under Section 309 of the Indian Penal Code, attempted suicide is punishable with a jail term of up to one year, or a fine, or both. This has come in for harsh criticism over the years. “Someone is in a precarious mental state where he wants to take his own life: he requires counselling, support and treatment, not a prison sentence,” says Dr Pillai. “Imprisonment serves no purpose. Viewing suicide as a criminal offence hinders discussions on mental health, depression and treatment.”
According to news reports, the government is in the process of repealing Section 309. Early last month, the Home Ministry circulated a note to all states on effacing the section, and is currently waiting for their responses.
In October 1984, M. G. Ramachandran—the man the people of Tamil Nadu called their son, father, and brother all in one—fell ill. His kidney failed on October 6, followed by a mild heart attack and then a stroke on October 16. He was flown to Brooklyn, New York, for treatment.
MGR would return to India in February the following year, after going through a kidney transplant in December, but public sentiment was so absolutely tipped in his favour that hysteria broke out. Fans poured onto the streets, weeping in terror, fearing the death of the beloved leader. As the hysteria peaked, over 100—according to news reports at the time—attempted self-immolation.
One of the hundred was a slim 21-year-old called Manivannan. He had been a cheerful young man, revelling in unemployment, who—like most men of that background—liked nothing more than getting together with his group of friends. He also had one major weakness: MGR. In 1968, five-year-old Manivannan had watched Pudhiya Bhoomi, the story of MGR as an honest and upright surgeon, co-starring Jayalalithaa and Nambiar. Over the years, he would watch every single MGR movie that came out, most of them dozens of times each in the theatre.
“His favourite movie was Rickshawkaran,” says his younger sister Vedavalli. “He must have watched it over 50 times.” Rickshawkaran came out in 1971 and became one of MGR’s most identifiable films—a man of the masses, a rickshaw driver, in search of justice.
Vedavalli was only 12 in 1984, but remembers her brother as being an MGR fanatic. “He would recite dialogues and sing all the songs. He and his friends would enact parts of movies. My father passed away many years before but my mother was also an MGR fan. I liked to go to school.”
When news of MGR’s illness spread, Manivannan was almost inconsolable. “He cried for many hours. We shared a room and he would lock me out and cry. Then his friends came home and they all spoke together and he quickly left. That was the last time I saw him able to walk freely.”
Manivannan and two of his friends would set themselves on fire in a playground nearby. They were taken to a hospital by passersby. The two friends survived. Manivannan died two months later on December 21, just days after MGR received his kidney transplant.
“He was badly burned in the lower half; the doctor said he had internal injuries and they weren’t recovering well,” says Vedavalli. “My mother would sob every day and go to the hospital. Then he was brought home and she would stay with him all the time. She was proud of him for doing something like this.”
Was Vedavalli proud?
She sits straight in her chair—a tall, broad-shouldered woman in her early 40s with skin stretched tight across her face. The room is impeccably clean: an aged television set, stacks of Tamil magazines on the table, framed photographs of her, her husband and their two children taken at a photo studio. She is clearly restless to get back to her household work, keen on ending this conversation she does not want to have.
“What is there to be proud of? MGR only died in 1987. My brother died in 1984. After the first few weeks, his friends whom he thought so much of stopped visiting. Three of MGR’s party members came but they also never returned. They did not help. There was no money, and then no family.”
Self-immolation is more immediately recognised as death for protest; from Telangana to Tibet, activists have set themselves on fire for the recognition of a cause. In 2013 last year, a 30-year-old man burned himself to death in Tirupur to demand that the Arunthathiyars be given six per cent sub-quota within the 18 per cent reservation for Dalits in Tamil Nadu. Tamil Nadu in 1965 saw scores of activists set themselves on fire in protest against Hindi being imposed as the national language, starting with a labourer called Chinnaswamy in 1964.
Even today, it isn’t uncommon for political party members to threaten self-immolation “at the drop of a hat”, as Dr Lakshmi Venugopal says. “These are deep emotional responses, and it has a ripple effect, encouraging other people to take the same step. Political leaders must take responsibility.”
In 1986, Karunanidhi’s arrest for reviving the anti-Hindi agitation resulted in 21 people committing suicide, most of them through self-immolation. Government packages on “compassionate grounds” to families of victims only drove the number higher, as poverty and unemployment was rampant. Piece by piece, over the years, the state has put together a self-immolation movement driven by political loyalty, protest and desperation.
Accounts of these self-immolations on the Internet frequently use words like “glorious” to describe this struggle by Tamilians; many of the people who died are celebrated as martyrs who died for a cause. Posts on websites describe victims as “honourable and brave”.
Psychiatrists suggest that higher levels of literacy in southern states could be a driving factor for suicides: with education comes expectation, and therefore disappointment. Another reason suggested is lower levels of aggression in the southern state as compared to the north, leading to an internalisation of problems, and therefore suicide.
There is no record of the total number of those who attempt self-immolation. Dr Kathirasan says the lack of data is also because “the government doesn’t collect the data, almost naturally, other forces like hospitals and police stations don’t collect the data too. I think it is important that the term ‘failed suicide’ is avoided, at all costs. There is no such thing as a ‘failed suicide’. You can attempt suicide. Failure implies that to die is to win.”
According to Dying Without Killing: Self-Immolations, 1963-2002 by Michael Biggs, one-third of those who attempt self-immolation in India survive. Writing in the Indian Journal of Psychiatry in 2007, Lakshmi Vijayakumar—a psychiatrist and founder of suicide helpline Sneha—wrote that, “Emergency care to those who have attempted suicide is denied as many hospitals and practitioners hesitate to provide the needed treatment fearful of legal hassles. The actual data on attempted suicides becomes difficult to ascertain as many attempts are described to be accidental to avoid entanglement with police and courts.”
She also wrote that according to two studies in rural Tamil Nadu, the annual suicide rate is six to nine times the official rate.
A constable who has handled two cases of self-immolation in Vellore says that they usually describe attempted suicide as accidental. “You will not hear too many instances of police booking people for attempting suicide. Police stations do not have the infrastructure for that and the government anyway does not maintain a record of attempted suicides per year. Better than we turn a blind eye rather than fill up our time with such pointless paperwork.”
The mass self-immolation movement of the 1960s in Tamil Nadu is frequently compared to the series of self-immolations in Vietnam during the same period to protest against the persecution of Buddhists by the then government. In 1963, David Halberstam of The New York Times wrote this about the self-immolation of Buddhist monk Thích Qug Đuc: “Flames were coming from a human being; his body was slowly withering and shriveling up, his head blackening and charring. In the air was the smell of burning flesh … Behind me I could hear the sobbing of the Vietnamese who were now gatheringI was too shocked to cry, too confused to take notes or ask questions, too bewildered to even think.”
Maheshwari went home five weeks after she had been admitted in the hospital. “Her recovery period was very slow,” says Dr Neelakantan. “She was quite calm and quiet but her parents were hysterical and full of laments, blame. It was very hard for them to understand how their child could take a step like this. I tried to speak to them and calm them down, but it was difficult.”
It was left to Velan and his uncle Murugan to take Maheshwari home. She would not speak much or spend much time around people. A burn mark travelled from her left temple across her cheek and down her chin to her neck: red, raw and, to her, horrifyingly conspicuous. She had lost most of her hair.
“When we were taking her to the hospital, my mother tried to pat her on the head and the hair just came off in her hand,” says Velan.
Velan guessed why Maheshwari was silent, though he says he could not bring himself to ask her—this quiet, reserved sister who now was almost a stranger to him. Her classmate had left Pondicherry four days after her suicide attempt. He had left no contact number or address. Maheshwari had tried once to go to his house but his mother had asked her to leave. Maheshwari refused to leave the house after that. The doctors strongly recommended that she come to the hospital once a week to meet a psychiatrist but she refused. “I thought: why should I talk about something to a stranger? How can I explain what I felt, when I also did not know what I felt? It was also not just that. I would have had to walk to the hospital, or take an auto, and I couldn’t bear for people to see me.”
In December 2007, four months after her first attempt, Maheshwari set herself on fire. Her parents, Velan and Murugan were at work; only her 12-year-old sister Kamakshi was in the house. She went into the garden—“I wanted to go to the same place”—and emptied two bottles of kerosene onto herself. Her sister and neighbours heard her screams almost immediately.
Velan rushed home from his construction site just as the ambulance pulled into the narrow lane. “I felt like I had been stabbed many times with pain,” he says. “She was lying in the garden, moaning, and there were people standing everywhere, scared to touch her or hold her or even speak to her. I will never forget the smell and someone next to me told me, ‘That’s your sister’. I looked at her and she was moaning and all I could think was that this looks much worse than last time.”
The Social Welfare and Nutritious Meal Programme department under the government of Tamil Nadu lists a number of schemes for “the mentally retarded”, in its words, mostly maintenance allowances for “mentally retarded persons with 60 per cent disability and above”. The Health and Family Welfare department details state and district-wide mental health missions to normalise mental health as an issue, and increase literature and knowledge on the topic.
Very little exists outside of paper. Officials at the health department at the Secretariat in Chennai are bewildered when asked about Tamil Nadu’s high suicide rate, and about the need to provide counselling and treatment to those who attempt suicide. Two officials even suggest that this issue might come under the purview of the Chennai Corporation.
As a result, there is a comprehensive lack of government and institutional support to families of suicide victims, and those who attempt suicide. Over the years, NGOs have stepped forward to fill in the void by organising awareness campaigns and offer counselling services in cities and towns. “There was some attempt at survivor counselling under the District Mental Health Programme but it is sporadic, not continuous,” says Dr Kathirasan, “so the role played by NGOs is tremendous.”
On a national level, amendments to the Mental Health Care Bill, 2013, were approved by the Union Cabinet in January this year. The bill seeks to decriminalise suicide—saying “Notwithstanding anything contained in section 309 of the Indian Penal Code, any person who attempts to commit suicide shall be presumed, unless proved otherwise, to be suffering from mental illness at the time of attempting suicide and shall not be liable to punishment under the said section”.
Dr Pillai says there is plenty wrong with the Mental Health Care Bill, but steps like decriminalising suicide are important moves. “Unfortunately, the very definition of mental health in the bill is questionable. It seeks to make ‘mental health’ a very all-encompassing term, which could prove dangerous, even deluded. Not all people who attempt suicide suffer from mental illness.”
Mathangi Devanathan says that suicide has become too commonplace for state governments to tackle them in systematic ways, “unless you’re talking about a group issue like farmer suicides. Schoolgirls hanging themselves over examination pressure, or women setting themselves on fire to escape unhappy marriages—these are not seen as ‘big ticket’ issues. The government readily offers compensation packages to family members—often Rs. 50,000 to Rs. 1 lakh—but otherwise, these aren’t priority areas that require solutions.”
Devanathan adds that a government campaign against self-immolation is unlikely, given how politicised self-immolation is. “Party workers do it, party leaders threaten it, it’s almost valourised. No political party dares to touch such an explosive topic.”
She mentions a case study from her research work, of a young man in Andhra Pradesh who set himself on fire due to family problems. “A day later, political parties were knocking at his door, offering money to his family members in exchange for saying that he killed himself for the cause of Telangana. This isn’t unusual, and it’s quite common in rural pockets of Tamil Nadu too. The man is dead, his family gets much-needed money, and it all becomes part of a political narrative.”
The first time she spoke to someone who wanted to attempt suicide, she remembers being full of shame and pity. “It was a girl on the telephone line, about 19 years old,” Gayatri (name changed) says. “She was clearly in the middle of a full-blown panic attack. She was talking very fast; she said her mind was thinking of too many things and her brain was not able to keep up, and she wanted to kill herself.”
Gayatri is 41 years old, a sleepy-eyed, tall woman with a slow, strangely comforting voice, her consonants long and enunciated. A psychologist by education but not practice, she volunteers at a national suicide prevention helpline, taking phone calls for two hours a day, five days a week.
“The girl was almost hysterical and not able to bring herself down, calm herself down,” she says. “We are coached and trained not to give advice. Instead, you ask questions. Not very simple questions, but questions that require some thought, some interest to answer. That varies from person to person, but it requires them to shift thought processes, and they become calmer.” Conversations vary in length too; Gayatri once spoke to a woman for over 30 minutes. The woman would not give her name, and Gayatri didn’t ask. “The anonymity helps them be more honest with a complete stranger.”
She says that several callers tell her about the method they are thinking of using. “Three people mentioned immolation to me. One girl was broken-hearted about the death of her boyfriend and said she took the matchbox from the god-cupboard at home. She was holding the matchbox in her hand when she called me.”
Gayatri doesn’t know how many of the callers go on to commit suicide, but says that calling a helpline is important when you’re feeling suicidal. “There are online forums, like Good Samaritans, where you can chat or email. There are phone lines across the world. The tragedy is that some victims commit suicide on impulse; they feel helpless or upset or angry and don’t pause.”
Maheshwari sits across the table in her brother’s house, seven years later. She is wearing a pale blue polycotton sari printed with cheerful green flowers, the likes of which have never been seen on tree or plant. Her hair is thick and coarse and pulled into a tidy bun at the nape of her neck. Two morams (strings) of jasmine are wrapped around it. Her hands are spread on the tabletop, palms pressed down, and the skin on her hands is patchy and discoloured.
The scar from left temple to neck remains, with a darker, deeper scar now on her right cheek. The skin on her forearms and stomach peeled off in strips, and the grafts are clearly visible: a patchwork of light and dark skin. The shape of her face has changed—the thick, leathery patches from her burns altered the contours of her cheeks, jaw and nose. Both arms and legs lost tissue and muscle in the burns, and she moves slowly and carefully, every movement calculated.
“I don’t like the media. Every year someone will come and ask me the same questions.”
“What kind of questions?”
“Why did I do it, how much do I suffer when I look at the mirror. Even now I still can’t answer these questions properly so I would prefer not to be asked that.”
Maheshwari lives in Pondicherry now with Velan and his wife. She describes her sister-in-law as kind. “I think she doesn’t like me there but she is too polite to say so, so it doesn’t matter. Where will I go otherwise?”
Why did she choose fire?
“I thought it was the easiest way. I didn’t think. It was very quick the first time. The idea came into my head and I thought yes, I’ll go to the open space behind the house with kerosene. I knew it would be painful but I wanted it to be hard and not an easy, quiet way. I was full of suffering and I was not thinking clearly about death, just about making a point.”
And the second time?
“I had failed. My life had become worse. My family could not speak to me, people outside couldn’t look at me directly. I felt the shame was too great. And my reasons were stronger now. The first time was because I felt I was not allowed to love someone. The second time was because I was alone and helpless. It was harder though because I knew what pain to expect but even then I just wished I could have died.”
Under pressure from the doctors at JIPMER, Maheshwari met with a psychologist attached to the hospital for the first three months after she was discharged. She is vague about what she discussed.
“We’re not from well-off families where going to a psychologist is a normal thing,” she says. “It seems like an upper class kind of treatment. The doctor was helpful but I was not comfortable with having to speak to someone. I don’t need to understand my thoughts. I need to find a life.” A year later, Maheshwari started working at her father’s fish stall and now teaches at the local corporation school. “Only the young children though. They don’t realise I look wrong because they are still kozhundai, children.”
(Sneha’s 24-hour suicide helpline can be called at 04424640050.)