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On most days, Jabalpur’s well-known Tilwara bridge, on the route to Nagpur, makes a fetching picture. The Narmada gushes far below, dark hills rise at one end of the bridge, the other end a sea of green that seals from view the grimy city of Jabalpur beyond. But in ‘suicide season’, as locals casually call the months between April and July, when exam results are generally declared, this bridge turns deadly, becoming the city’s preferred ‘khudkhushi point’, tempting scores of young men and women to go over the rails and into the swirling waters below.
This doesn’t raise many eyebrows in Jabalpur anymore, for the phenomenon has been all too routinised. In fact, the National Crime Records Bureau’s suicide statistics reveal a chilling fact: Jabalpur tops the list of Indian cities, with nearly 50 suicides a month and a suicide rate of 45.1 for every 1,000 people in the city, beating 52 other big cities like Bangalore, Chennai, Pune, Delhi and Mumbai. Jabalpur clocked 572 suicides in 2012, up from 351 the year before. Local papers reduce news of daily suicides to single column stories, though recently the local channel, Sahara Samay MP, aired an hour-long special feature on the depressing trend, titled ‘Jabalpur: Suicide Capital’. “The local media haven’t fully caught on to the gravity of the situation. There are hardly any discussions on the problem, not even among NGOs,” says Harpreet Kaur, who produced the show. But what makes Jabalpur such a grim city to live in? Amit Mishra, 17, a student in a private school who tried to commit suicide early this month, has a ready answer: “This is not a city that can support my dreams and my parents don’t understand that. I failed my Class XII this year and father wants me to pursue engineering when all I want is to go to Mumbai and try my luck as an actor,” says the young man, lying in the ICU at the city’s National Hospital, where several beds are reserved under the ‘poison unit’, meant for treating an overwhelming number of residents who consume poison to try to end it all.
Amit swallowed naphthalene balls on the night of July 1 and and was brought to the hospital by his parents the next day. In an eerie reality TV-like dramatisation of his deathwish, he tells us about a suicide note he has composed, noting that his case should be featured on Crime Patrol, a TV show. He pulls out his wallet and points to two photos, one showing a dusky, shy-looking boy, the other the grown-up, better-groomed version. “Can you believe this? So dark-skinned and mousy. Look at how I have worked on myself. I have high aspirations, I want expensive phones, a job in the movies, I just need my parents to let me go.”
His father steps in to inquire after his health, but the young boy won’t talk to him. Outside, the father, Satyendra Mishra, is in tears: “I’m just a worried father. What did I do wrong? I have a job in a clothing company, but I’ve tried to give him all he ever wanted. In return, I ask him to focus, not be wayward. But I guess we failed to understand him.”
Across from Amit’s bed twentysomething Meena Kumar lies unconscious. She is in a critical condition. Her husband Naren, a pharmacist, claims she swallowed four unknown antibiotics “by mistake”. A few beds down, Dhiren Singh, 28, who consumed Celphos pesticide the day before, writhes in pain and is delirious. He is watched over by his brother, whom doctors have told that Dhiren won’t survive the day. Asked why he took the drastic step, his brother Viru shrugs, saying he may have been unhappy as he didn’t have a regular job, but couldn’t be sure as they weren’t close enough.
Jabalpur, the army nerve-centre of Madhya Pradesh, could well resemble any other Indian small town in the midst of a badly managed transition. As a chaotic traffic system gives way to a regularised bus service, single screen halls make way for multiplexes, local markets compete with the new ‘Big Bazaar’ mall in town, old and new mindsets battle it out. But below the surface, the city hasn’t kept up with the pace of its people, those with big city aspirations. “People are taking extreme measures here at the drop of a hat, and one of the reasons could be the breakdown of the joint family. Petty domestic quarrels become bigger because you have no one to sort things out. Plus, the working population here is solely dependent on government jobs, such as those at the Gun Carriage Factory, Vehicle Factory or Indian Ordnance Factory, with few industries and hardly any avenues in the private sector,” says Harinarayanachari Mishra, SP for the district. “Who knows, but reading about suicides everyday in the newspapers could be setting off a chain reaction, becoming the obvious response to any problem, big or small.”
A large chunk of the suicide victims are students and young housewives, according to police figures. Dr Hema Sahu, one of the few clinical psychologists in the city, says, “Most of my patients are aged 16-30, as this is the stage when you want the whole world with as little effort as possible. I regularly have newly-married women whose expectations from marriage are different from what it is in reality, students who feel isolated in this city, kids who cannot communicate with their parents. I’m not surprised I have three times the number of patients coming to me than two years ago, because the opportunities here are sorely missing and dissatisfaction levels are so high.”
Worry Not, This Fan Is Suicide-Proof
Dr R.S. Sharma’s invention can save on-the-brink lives
Dr R.S. Sharma, a cardiologist who is well-regarded in town, says, “If Jabalpur’s residents are not inspired to realign their mindsets, at least let’s make it tougher for them to take their own lives.” Sharma has invented a “suicide-proof fan”, struck by the spate of death-by-hanging cases, especially by hostellers. Sharma’s assistant uses a stool and a sample fan to demonstrate. It’s a simple device, really, where the springs give if anything heavier than 25 kilos is hung from the fan. “It costs just Rs 450-600 more than a regular fan and the idea was that, just as there is a safety device in every machine, why not have one in a fan, which is one of the most common methods of suicide here,” says Sharma, who has filed for a patent and received an order for 1,000 pieces from the Union ministry of science and technology.
Gynaecologist Pushpa Pande, who also counsels in her free time, prefers attacking the root cause, which she elaborates as rising self-esteem issues in an “inferior city”. Jabalpur is a city in deep conflict, she says, much more than other metros. “Youngsters want to explore a more experimental life, but the older generation hasn’t welcomed change. TV is probably the only source of entertainment here, encouraging artificial expectations, which leads to widespread depression when those expectations are not met,” explains Pande, who hosts a batch of medical students every morning in the meditation hall at her home to deal with stress.
One of her patients, 27-year-old Jeet Sharma, under medication for chronic depression, continues to struggle with “small-town boy” image issues. “I used to see my Facebook friends put up posts about travelling all over the world and I used to ask myself, why not me?” Jeet asks. While Jabalpur may be a tier-2 city on paper, it feels far from one.
Despite a few well-intentioned interventions, Jabalpur grapples with bigger issues at the moment. In the narrow, busy lanes of the city’s Saraafa Bazaar, where Hitendra Srivastava lives in a modest two-storey house, the lack of good medical care continues to haunt the 35-year-old government school teacher. He lost his younger brother, Tijendra, in March this year. He had hung himself from the ceiling fan in his bedroom. Hitendra seats himself on a plastic chair from where he can look out the main door on to the street. “This is where my brother liked to sit the entire day, not saying much. He was diagnosed with schizophrenia in 2006, and I used to take him to the Institute of Mental Health in Agra every month for checkups. If we had better access to medical facilities right here in Jabalpur, he could have been saved.”
The city, about 300 km from the state capital Bhopal, has touristic potential in Bedaghat, the site famous for marble rocks that rise dramatically on either side of the Narmada, the picturesque Dhuandhar falls, and a few important temples. The city also serves as the nerve-centre of many bus and railway lines, with a tiny airport offering daily flights to Delhi and Mumbai. But the joke here goes that only outbound trains and flights go full as everyone only wants to flee.
Yet, not everyone is convinced that there is anything particularly amiss in Jabalpur. Rakesh Singh, BJP mp from the city, says he was surprised to learn about its suicide figures. “There has been a lot of development here in the last 7-8 years, in terms of connectivity, growth, education. Perhaps societal changes are the reason.” Indeed, despite its somewhat lethargic functioning, Jabalpur is something of an education hub in Madhya Pradesh, third in line after Bhopal and Indore, with a number of engineering and medical institutions. With a high student population from smaller districts of Madhya Pradesh and neighbouring states, there is clearly a rising sense of youth disillusionment. Geeta Gupta, a 26-year-old medical student from Rajasthan, has lived in Jabalpur for the last eight years and studies at N.S.C.B. Medical College, located on the outskirts. But increasing pressure at college and no emotional outlet—either in the form of counselling or an ambience of downtime—has led to deep depression. Geeta fights suicidal thoughts, confiding in nobody. “When I was interning last year, I’d come across 4-5 cases of attempted suicide daily. That shook me up, helped me get a perspective, and seek help. I didn’t want to end up like that,” she says.
Dr O.P. Raichandani, a psychiatrist, admits Jabalpur is terribly low on medical resources to deal with the rising number of patients. “Awareness of psychiatry and psychotherapy is low, helplines are few, there are no full-time psychiatric wards. All this could build up to such a high suicide rate, but it’s also possible the rate of suicide reporting is higher than other cities,” he says.
What little counselling facilities the town has are rather arbitrary, with hardly any follow-ups; psychologists often don’t even keep records of patients who consult them. “Jabalpur has what you could call an inferiority complex. Compared to Indore and Bhopal, cities that are better planned, Jabalpur is a society in turmoil,” says Gyan Prakash, a social science professor at Devi Ahilya Vishwavidyalaya, Indore. What is also missing, adds Mishra, the SP, is a sense of public outrage. “As a society, we are not reacting strongly enough. At the police end, we are planning a seminar on suicides with the help of the Jabalpur Foundation,” he says. “Through the initiative, we will encourage students to communicate, and schools and colleges to keep counsellors close at hand.”
Meanwhile, Jabalpur could do well to remember these immortal lines by Dorothy Parker:
Razors pain you,
Rivers are damp,
Acids stain you,
And drugs cause cramp.
Guns aren’t lawful,
Gas smells awful,
You might as well live.
(Names of patients have been changed)
Cities With The Highest Suicide Rates
(Annual figures of suicides per 1,000 people living in the city or town.)
Top Causes Of Suicide*
Top Modes Of Suicide
Source: Latest National Crime Records Bureau, Jabalpur police stats
By Neha Bhatt in Jabalpur