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Dreaming and dying in Bangalore

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Bangalore is India’s Silicon Valley—at a price. Are its suicide levels, higher than elsewhere in urban India, any indication of its future?

Bangalore is India’s Silicon Valley—at a price. Are its suicide levels, higher than elsewhere in urban India, any indication of its future?

The office of SAHAI helpline for Suicide Prevention and Emotional Distress is located in Frazer Town, a quiet neighbourhood in Bangalore. Part of the cantonment area established by the British, Frazer Town, with its neatly laid out streets and lush green cover, is a remnant of the old, vanishing city. Residents are unfamiliar with its new name, Pulakeshinagar, imposed some years back as an assertion of Kannada identity. Here, in an old-style colonial bungalow, from one tiny cubicle—with two chairs, a desk and a phone—a group of volunteers, mostly retired professionals trained by psychiatrists, run the helpline through the day.

This is perhaps the only space in the city where institutional proof of Bangalore’s reputation as the ‘suicide capital of the country’ (an epithet the media loves to trot out every so often) is to be found. Pieces of paper are pinned on the wall behind the desk; the numbers for psychiatrists, hospitals and police helplines are marked in bold; one paper is titled ‘Subscales of Hopelessness’, with subheads like ‘Poor Distress Tolerance’ and ‘Perceived Burdensomeness’; a graph illustrates the triggers and predispositions to suicide.

It is the afternoon shift, and 56-year-old Anita Gracias, a volunteer, is filling out a register where the database of callers is maintained. The most committed and effective emissary for the helpline since it started, she has a sociable air and a cheery voice. “People always assume that certain personality types will be depressed and suicidal. That gregarious, outgoing people— someone like me—will never suffer depression, but that’s not true. I was deeply suicidal myself. I have been in a deep hole and come out of it only because I had some people who believed in my story and held me up. So, I do this for others.”

The helpline was started in 2002 by a retired resident of Bangalore, KK Rajagopal, as a joint project of the Rotary Club and NIMHANS (National Institute of Mental Health and Neuro Sciences), when it was noted that the rate of suicide was rapidly climbing in Bangalore. Rajagopal himself has suffered from depression, after losing his young daughter to an accident. He says that most of the calls come from men and women employed in the IT sector and students, but over the years, the age group of callers has widened; now ranging from the really young to the elderly.

The data from September 2012 to February 2014 at SAHAI shows 1100 cases, of which 580 are women, 475 men; 55 are those under the age of 18. The callers share stories of loneliness, depression and frustration. Gracias says, “My job is a form of emotional nursing. We’re not giving prescription or medication, we’re just holding up people. It is important for us as volunteers to earn the trust of our callers. When they call here, they share with us problems that they can’t share with people who are known to them, so they call a helpline and share with a total stranger.”

She brings out her phone to show us the photograph of Madhu (name changed), whom she calls her biggest success story. Madhu was 15 when she connected with Gracias on the helpline number for the first time. The young girl, attractive and smiling into the camera, looks like any girl of her age, beaming, with not a care in the world. The first time that Gracias met her, she had multiple slit marks on her wrists from previous suicide attempts.

“I was going through a bad phase and I saw no choice but to end it,” says Madhu, when she agrees to talk with us, on the phone. She is 23 now, and works in the IT sector. She speaks slowly and softly.

“I was not able to make friends, I was doing badly in school. When I reached out to my parents, I was ridiculed and abused. I was told I should pray and study harder. I needed someone to understand my fear and insecurity.”

About two months back, on 13 and 14 June, Bangalore made a record of sorts, with 10 suicides over two days—the most talked-about of which was the suicide of a software engineer, who was found hanging from a ceiling fan in his parents’ house. A rash of headlines on Bangalore as the suicide capital of India followed. A few days later in June, a professor committed suicide in Indiranagar; newspapers reported that he was allegedly upset his wife was not joining him for dinner. In July, a 35-year- old techie from Kolkata, who lived alone in the city, committed suicide at his home in Indiranagar. In August, two women from the city, both middle- aged—one who worked at a private company and the other a teacher—were rescued after they jumped into the river at the Dharmasthala Temple, which is on the outskirts of the city. A few days later, a 22-year-old medical student from Bangalore committed suicide by hanging herself from a ceiling fan at her college, near Bellur.

Crime reporters in the city tell will you that reporting on suicide keeps them on their toes, most of the time. For the better part of the last decade, Bangalore has held the position of having the highest number of suicides of all Indian cities. To put things in perspective, if we look at the year 2013 the suicide rate in Bangalore, at 23.9, is much above that of Delhi at 10.7, Mumbai at 7.2 and Kolkata at 2.7, according to the statistics of National Crime Record Bureau (NCRB). The peak in Bangalore came during a five year period, from 2005 to 2010, and these years also coincided with exponential growth: in 2008, the rate of suicide was at an alarmingly high 42.1.

In the last two years, however, Chennai has overtaken Bangalore as the city with the highest number of suicides; Bangalore recorded 2033 suicides last year, compared with Chennai’s 2183. Dr Lakshmi Vijayakumar, a suicide prevention expert and founder of Sneha—a suicide prevention centre in Chennai—says that the drastic changes in Bangalore, as it began to rapidly expand to become an IT hub, combined with migration from rural and urban areas, connect to higher suicide rates. “It’s interesting to note that Chennai is where Bangalore was five years back, in terms of employment, infrastructure and IT boom, so the rate is going up.”

If suicide is a social fact, then the findings of the NCRB in India, which have pointed toward a higher rate of suicide in all four southern states, become all the more intriguing.

Of course, this has all often been brushed away with the explanation that higher literacy rates and better governance in the South mean that maintenance of records is better than it would be, say, in states like Bihar and Uttar Pradesh; many cases there must go unrecorded. While this must be taken into account, the Million Death Study (the largest study of premature mortality conducted in India) has established a definite North/South divide in suicides.

Vikram Patel, joint director of the Centre for Global Mental Health, who has published a widely regarded paper on suicide mortality based on the Million Death Study in The Lancet, explores possible explanations. “Some people believe that there is greater acceptability for suicide in South India, as part of the culture. The main reason according to us is the greater gap in education and aspiration between the South and the North. When younger people with better education and aspiration, as in the South, find their expectations are not met, they are drawn towards self-harm.”

Importantly, Professor Patel also says that suicide is the leading cause of death in young people in South India (aside from accidents), and will soon be the leading cause of death for young people in the rest of the country as well. “In India, suicide has been a socio-economic and political issue with farmer suicides. We also take a very moral and social stand on suicide. What we need is a public health strategy for suicide. The rest of the world is tackling the issue of suicide on a war footing, but we have no strategy for it.”

Have we focussed on rural suicides at the cost of suicides in cities?

Something is rotten in the city of Bangalore. It can be read in the fatigue that citizens express with the state of things. The population has exploded; the 2011 Census showed the steepest rise in population growth rate in the country in Bangalore. Traffic woes have mounted, trees have been cut down and bungalows have made way for high rises.

The city goes by many names: ‘pensioners’ paradise’ and ‘garden city’ derived from its history, ‘air-conditioned city’ inspired by its climate,‘IT capital’ and ‘pub capital’ taken from its contemporary representation. All these names are intrinsically linked with a culture that is young and liberal, intellectual and invigorating. Its equable climate and cosmopolitanism make it the most congenial of all our cities.

On St Mark’s Road, Koshy’s, an old Bangalore institution and an adda for the people of the city—many of them artists, writers, performers, activists—since the 1940s, remains reassuringly unchanged: the same wood-panelled walls and black- and-white sketches of the city from an era gone by. Prem Koshy, proprietor and raconteur, remembers with nostalgia the city that is depicted on the walls of his restaurant. “The Bangalore where I was born was a sleepy, languid place, we cycled to all places, wore woolens in summer, the air was cleaner, the weather was kinder and nothing much happened, life went on. Everybody knew everybody. Yet, it was a truly modern city, with a mix of local and Western culture.”

Writer Anjum Hasan, who comes from Shillong and has made Bangalore her home—and her muse in some of her writing, like her last collection of short stories, Difficult Pleasures—speaks of the changing identity of the city. “Some cities— Bombay, London, Shanghai—have historically been centres of economic and political activity over centuries, and attracted people from everywhere. Bangalore is interesting because there has always been something low-key about it. It does not have the grand colonial architecture of Bombay or the historical architecture of Delhi; its cosmopolitanism is unshowy, not a self-regarding kind, and it was not the centre of any crucial battle and does not have a particularly strategic location. And yet, unlike Bombay or Calcutta, it was very much a city before the colonisers got here.”

Artist and performer Pushpamala N, born and brought up in Bangalore, is the face of the art scene of the city. She feels that the city has been “uglified”, but simultaneously become far more vibrant. “I feel it is the most contemporary city in India. It has an intellectual atmosphere that nurtures science and technology, and is also supportive of the arts. Bangalore has a lot of interesting people of the finest calibre, and yet it is an informal and fun city.”

Old timers will say that the city grew up too fast, after the IT boom of the ’90s, which was the beginning of the change. They will tell you how the city once had no traffic problems and no pollution, affordable housing and easy availability of services. These factors turned it into a crucible for startups and home for migrants and expatriates from around the world.

“This cosmopolitanism does not mean tensions don’t exist in the city,” says Hasan. “It definitely contains an older, modern in its own way, Kannada—or more broadly South Indian—world, and a westernised world, which once had an Anglophone, ‘cantonment’ culture and is today driven by an Americanised global business culture.”

As Bangalore turned to boomtown, the fairytale began to pall. The evidence of this can be found in the name which has stubbornly attached itself to the city in the last couple of years as its waste disposal crisis has mounted: Garden City has become Garbage City. The garbage crisis of Bangalore is by now a political issue as much as it is a civic issue, and has been covered around the world.

One can also turn to Namma Metro, the city’s metro system, which came into being in 2011. The construction of the first phase was mismanaged from the start: thousands of trees were cut down and long swathes of road were dug up unnecessarily, to cover less than seven kilometres. Unlike Delhi, where the Metro is a rallying point for citizens, for the people of Bangalore the Metro is a sign of everything that has gone wrong with the city. At 8.30 in the morning, MG Road Station—which is the heart of the commercial district of the city—wears a ghostly look. No pushing and shoving; instead, a few office-workers leisurely get on and off the trains.

What the city lacks in infrastructure, it makes up for in its tradition of volunteering: citizens who act as custodians of the city. Janaagraha, a Bangalore-based NGO that focusses on improving the quality of life in urban India, has tried to tap into this spirit to start a distinctive project which uses technology to address civic issues. ‘I Change My City’ is a website that brings citizens, corporators and civic officials together on a Facebook-like platform, where citizens can directly highlight problems in their areas and demand change by voting.

The public platform forces civic agencies to act promptly to complaints, top among them garbage disposal. “Bangalore is Karnataka’s cash cow. We need to invest adequately in its infrastructure to retain global talent. All the challenges that face Indian cities are concentrated here,” says Srikanth Viswanathan, coordinator at Janaagraha.

To find out what ails Bangalore, we met one of its most prominent citizen activists, TV Mohandas Pai, former board member at Infosys, who co-founded BPAC (Bangalore Political Action Committee) with Kiran Mazumdar- Shaw: a citizens’ initiative to promote better quality of life in the city. At his office in central Bangalore, Pai speaks of the context for banding together as citizens under BPAC. “Bangalore city has gone amok, we need to reclaim it, participate in governance, be a potential force, be a lobby of educated people. The city has changed radically over the last ten years, it’s become a bigger city, more areas have been added to it, we see a great influx of people, crime rates have gone up, policing and governance have come down.”

According to him, the city is suffering the consequences of prosperity combined with a lack of planning and investment. There is no political will to invest in the city, even though it yields maximum dividends. He lists the woes of the city: the municipal corporation is broken down and is seriously understaffed, with no new appointment for the last 20 years; there is a real estate mafia, garbage mafia, water tanker mafia; and there is a weak government which simply does not care.

FRENCH SOCIOLOGIST EMILE

Durkheim, in a study on suicide in 1897, said that suicide tells as much about individual struggles as it does about society and social groups. Ironically, the very foundation of Bangalore is steeped in a mythical story of suicide.

There is a debate amongst historians in Bangalore about the role of Lakshmidevi, the daughter-in-law of the founder of the city, Kempe Gowda. (The Public Works Standing Committee has recommended, this week, an award in her name to recognise 10 exemplary women.) It is said that in the sixteenth century, when Kempe Gowda was building a fort in the city, the wall kept collapsing; a priest was consulted, who recommended human sacrifice. Lakshmidevi jumped down from the wall of the fort. The city was built, but a life was lost.

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