I have been living in Chennai for more than seven years. But it is only now, since the past three months, that I have begun to understand the city better. All these years, my job with a Sunday paper, which was eager to be representative of the whole of south India rather than just Chennai, kept me insulated from the city. By and large, that is. Whatever little exposure I had was through the TASMAC bars, where I saw low lives on a high. Rest of the time was divided between home (where I entertained friends), work and travelling. I rarely read the papers: I coudn't be bothered what was happening in Porur or Thiru Vi Ka Nagar. To me they were as distant and irrelevant as Latin America.
Things have changed. Today I have a job that requires me to go through a lot of city copies. Suddenly, I realise that Chennai is not just about T. Nagar Or Adyar or Besant Nagar or Nungambakkam. It is also about Porur and Thiru Vi Ka Nagar and Royapuram and Nanganallur. I also realise that it is not just about labourers drinking in a TASMAC bar and Page-3 aspirants raising their glasses in an upmarket pub. Between the two varieties of highs, there are many lows. Such as people dying -- by way of accidents, murder or suicide. Not a day passes when I don't come across a news that invloves either of these.
What depresses me most are the accidents and the suicides. Usually, readers tend to brush aside 'One-man-killed' kind of news, especially if the victim is faceless and doesn't belong to their neighbourhood. Ditto for suicides: why on earth should you bother about a 45-year-old woman killing herself in north Chennai?
But then, the story behind every such death is the story of you and me. A family of four -- parents and two young sons -- was driving on a pleasure trip to Mahabalipuram when a drunk driver coming from the opposite direction turned their car into a mangled coffin within seconds on the East Coast Road. The family hailed from Indore, and they had been coming to Chennai for the past 13 years to treat a heart condition of their younger son (who, incidentally, topped the CBSE exams in Madhya Pradesh this year). This year, the doctors gave the boy a thumbs up, and the relieved family took off for Mahabalipuram in celebration, little knowing that they were embarking on their final journey. The sad part is one of the sons (not the one with a heart condition) survived. I say sad because I believe that in such extreme cases, a single person should not be left alive to cope with a tragedy that will haunt like a terminal disease. But then, many would see the practical side of it -- that each one of us has his or her life-span already written out. Destiny, basically.
And then the case of a class 12 student, who had just finished his board exams. One day, during his vacations, he returned home after meeting a friend and found the lift not working. The same morning, someone in the apartment got stuck in the lift and the glass window had to be broken open. So when the boy pressed the button and saw that the lift was not coming down, he peeped through the broken window of the door to take a look. The descending lift smashed his head. When the class 12 results were out, he scored 70%-plus marks -- posthumously. Destiny can be cruel, but so cruel?
I don't know, though, how much of a role does destiny play in suicides. One young mother, whose daughter could not get admission into a decent kindergarten school, committed suicide. The woman did not have the money or the influence to get her daughter an admission, so she preferred to leave the girl motherless, unable to bear the sight of other children going to school while her daughter stayed home. She hanged herself.
But the most common way of committing suicide in Chennai is by self-immolation. It is so common that the moment you read about a suicide, you know it is self-immolation. It is really getting on my nerves, so much so that this evening I didn't even bother to read the story when I saw a colleague typing a headline, 'Woman sets herself afire a month after marriage.' If someone is being burnt forcibly, I can understand, but why roast yourself alive? I still haven't figured why. The idea of committing suicide is to free yourself from the burdens imposed on you by this world, and the quicker the death is, the better. I still can't understand why people choose to take such a long, painful route to death. If you think death frees you, then at least die in a manner so that you are carried to the pyre with a smile on your dead lips -- the smile of being freed from this life. Why put your loved ones through the torture of seeing you being burnt twice?
But then, that's how it is here. And it is very depressing, I tell you. Exactly a month ago, one morning, I got a call. The caller informed that my driver, Suresh, won't be coming because his parents had committed suicide. I was half-asleep when the call came, and by the time I was fully awake and understood the gravity of the situation, the caller had hung up, having fulfilled his duty of informing me. For long I wondered if should call my driver on the mobile phone that I had given him. My heart said I should call him up and extend every possible help, but my head said I should leave him alone: he would call in case he needed me. Eventually I decided to call, but the call refused to go through. That evening, when I went to work, I learnt the details of his parents' suicide from the crime reporter: a man and his wife in Royapuram had committed suicide by burning themselves because they felt their son -- my driver, that is -- was not taking proper care of them.
The next morning, I looked for more reports. One English paper had invented a 'brother' for Suresh, called 'Ramesh', and said the two sons had ignored their parents so much that they were forced to take the extreme step. The Tamil papers went a step ahead: they said Suresh and his 'wife' had ignored his parents. I alone knew the truth, and also got to know the truth that goes into police press releases and the copies of crime reporters with fertile imagination.
The truth is that Suresh's father was a drunkard who was extremely bitter about losing his job as a loader after an accident. And that drunken night, he perhaps feelt slighted by some inadvertent gesture of his son, so he took the extreme step along with his wife. After a month's absence, Suresh is back in my life, as if nothing has happened. But his parents must have charred his youth in some way or the other. Or else, he wouldn't look 42 at 24.
Then, another report. Two labourers, one old and one young, have a verbal duel. The younger one says somthing nasty, which the older one takes to heart. Eventually, the older man douses himself in kerosene and kills himself, unable to stomach the insult. Whoever said the poor didn't have dignity? Perhaps that's their only wealth, which they don't earn easily.
Some weeks ago, the paper carried a story about a man who, for decades, had preserved Mahatma Gandhi's sole autograph in Tamil. The man, 84-year-old Seethapathi Naidu, had got the autograph in 1938 when he was a 14-year-old boy. Gandhi was then touring Nagapattinam to collect funds for flood-relief in Bihar. Seethapathi found no takers for the rare autograph all these years till the story broke, after which the Tamil Nadu government acquired the piece of paper to showcase it in the Egmore museum.
On Monday, Seethapathi was suddenly dead, not because of old age, but because he had committed suicide for not being able to live his life the way he wanted to. And how did he die? Self-immolation. Gandhi surely wouldn't have approved of it.