Understanding Despair: Let Stories Help us

Suicide isn’t just a philosophical question. It is also a societal, political, economic and cultural question. It is a public health question.

Illustration: Chaitanya Rukumpur

“Why did she do it? Nobody dared to ask. Because—what courage! Who had the courage to burn herself? Twenty aspirin, a little slit alongside the veins of the arm, maybe even a bad half hour standing on a roof: We've all had those. And somewhat more dangerous things, like putting a gun in your mouth. But you put it there, you taste it, it's cold and greasy, your finger is on the trigger, and you find that a whole world lies between this moment and the moment you've been planning, when you'll pull the trigger. That world defeats you. You put the gun back in the drawer. You'll have to find another way.

What was that moment like for her? The moment she lit the match. Had she already tried roofs and guns and aspirins? Or was it just an inspiration?”

— Girl, Interrupted by Susanna Kaysen, published in 1993.

In 2019, as I waited in the immigration line at the San Francisco airport, a message beeped.

“Do you have a few minutes to listen?”


“I am feeling suicidal.”

“Stay wherever you are. It will pass.”

The world defeated him then. He didn’t go ahead. He decided to live.

He was a stranger, someone you know on social media, a projected persona. He said he had felt betrayed. He was in love. A love that made him feel helpless. He said there was nobody he could talk to. His best friend had said he was busy. We spoke for a long time until the urge passed. He said thank you. I checked on him a few times later and he said he was fine.

But I remember the language. Stark, despairing and honest. A cry for help.

Another time, a friend said she had seen the green dot against my name and in the nocturnal hours, she had decided to send a message about her feeling like she should end all agony herself. As she had waded through what she called the dark tunnel, the green dot made her pause.

That pause was everything.

“Thanks for understanding,” she said as she hung up.

I don’t know if I did or if I do. Or if anyone really understands what brings someone close to the edge.

In 1942, Albert Camus, in his The Myth of Sisyphus, deals with suicide as a philosophical question. Sisyphus, a Greek mythological character condemned by the gods to roll a rock up to the top of a mountain, only to have the rock roll back down to the bottom every time he reaches the top, chooses to live and Camus argues that Sisyphus has indeed freed himself of his punishment and even triumphed by accepting it and that the realisation of the absurd doesn’t justify suicide. The idea of absurd lies in the juxtaposition of the human need to find the meaning of life and the “unreasonable silence” of the universe in response.

Illustration: Chaitanya Rukumpur

“The struggle itself towards the heights is enough to fill a man’s heart. One must imagine Sisyphus happy,” Camus writes toward the end.

But I can’t imagine Sisyphus to be happy. The rock is heavy with despair and that despair sometimes isn’t about finding any meaning and coming to terms with the fact that there is none.

Language has its limitations. Sometimes, I feel that Sisyphus should have let the rock be. We would have had another ending where we wouldn’t have to emulate Sisyphus’ resilience, where Sisyphus could have revolted differently, where Sisyphus would have shown us what despair means.

The issue of communicative challenges posed by mental illness is a big one. Often, literature provides that language.

“A phenomenon that a number of people have noted while in deep depression is the sense of being accompanied by a second self—a wraithlike observer who, not sharing the dementia of his double, is able to watch with dispassionate curiosity as his companion struggles against the oncoming disaster, or decides to embrace it. There is a theatrical quality about all this, and during the next several days, as I went about stolidly preparing for extinction, I couldn’t shake off a sense of melodrama—a melodrama in which I, the victim-to-be of self-murder, was both the solitary actor and lone member of the audience,” writes William Styron in Darkness Visible: A Memoir of Madness. In 1985, Styron checked himself into a hospital. That December, his depression had got worse. In a piece in Vanity Fair magazine in 1989 called ‘Darkness Visible’, he revisited that bitterly cold December evening when he felt like giving up, that he could not survive another day.

“And just as powerfully as I realised I could not commit this desecration on myself. I drew upon some last gleam of sanity to perceive the terrifying dimensions of the mortal predicament I had fallen into. I woke up my wife and soon telephone calls were made. The next day I was admitted to the hospital,” he writes.

The extraverbal experiences are out there for us to read, to make sense of. The disordered world understands little, judges more. Suicide isn’t just a philosophical question. It is also a societal, political, economic and cultural question. It is a public health question. There shouldn’t be any morality attached to any prevention attempts when it comes to the desire to die. That desire and mental illness are closely related and therefore, the autonomy of that decision to die is questionable. There must be an attitudinal shift and that takes years and years. We, as a nation, have made some progress with the Mental Healthcare Act, 2017, which decriminalised attempted suicide. But that’s not enough. We aren’t sensitive. We lack the language. We put too much premium on resilience. We aren’t allowed to be weak. We don’t understand despair.


Thousands of farmers across India die by suicide because they don’t see a way out of debt and acute poverty. Our reportage lacks understanding. Our spaces to express, share and write are limited. We are afraid of fractured, broken stories. We always imagine Sisyphus to be happy.

Understanding might bring to the forefront many uncomfortable questions about us as people who are unwilling to accept weakness, who are always glorifying survival, who are always aligning with the fittest.

But writers have given us the language and the metaphors, a way to understand this very despair where one decides to give up on the world and hope itself.


I Have Not Seen Maandu: A Fractured Soul-Memoir, a translation of the memoir titled Maine Maandu Nahi Dekha of the famous writer Swadesh Deepak, is an unsettling book but one that gives one a way inside a mind that has built parallel worlds and in describing those worlds, the writer gives us the language of madness. Deepak had attempted to kill himself by setting himself on fire in his garden in his Ambala house, a house that I had visited in 2017 to see an unfinished manuscript called Samay Khand by the writer. In 2006, the writer, who struggled with bipolar disorder, went for a walk and never returned. Years later, his son Sukant Deepak wrote an account of the loss of a loved one to a mental disorder.


Called ‘Papa, Elsewhere’ in the Book Of Light by Jerry Pinto, the story begins from the point where the family almost celebrated the fact that he had gone away.

“He would plead, ‘Hit me on the head with a rod. I know you keep one under your bed. I know you can do it.’ Each time, I would tell him to get lost. I would treat him like the dog we never had,” the son wrote.

The son still grows roses in the garden, waters them and they bloom. His father, when he had come back from the psychiatric ward, had looked at the garden and said at least they could have watered the roses, Sukant Deepak had told me then.


In a book called Babugoshe, Swadesh Deepak had written a sentence that I often return to.

I– “Listen Mata. You will not say anything regarding my illness. You will not ask anything from anybody. Do you understand or not?”

... I am in the habit of observing pain from an ambush– always.

Back then, in that house that’s more than 200 years old in Ambala, the son and I discussed if Samay Khand could be translated as “fractured time” or “fragment of time”. He had said “fractured” was more apt.

Fragment is a delicate word. His father wouldn’t have wanted a delicate world to hold a story. The son still kept an iron rod under the bed. He told me he wasn’t waiting for his father. Had he assumed he was dead?  Yes, because without lithium, he would be miserable, he had said.


I see “fractured” in the title of the translation. Let’s have some faith in language, in writers, and us.

September 10 is observed as World Suicide Prevention Day. While I still don’t have the language to write about the stories of people in my own family who suffered from mental illnesses, I have been a witness too, and I am indebted to everyone who shared their stories with Outlook. One day, I will write those. That’s what we owe each other. Stories that tell us about despair and maybe with that understanding, we can become strong enough to be weak and to find help. Styron, Deepak and many others helped me. Let stories help us. Let’s write despair and in writing it, dispel it. Sisyphus should be able to talk to us, to find a way out, to be free. Let that story have a more happy ending. Maybe a person finds Sisyphus and cuts his chains.


(This appeared in the print as 'Decoding Despair')